Hurts Like the Dickens
July 27, 2010 8:36 PM   Subscribe

How do I read and comprehend older literature?

I've never been very good at reading older literature. I trudged my way through Heart of Darkness just fine, but comprehension was definitely an issue. Maybe not the best example, so I'll try to explain further.

Right now I'm trying to read Bleak House, by Dickens. It takes me ages to read it, partly because I might have to look up a couple words per page and then try to piece together what I understand. That said, there are points when I find myself asking "Who is she, again?" or "Why are they going there?" It's not just Dickens, though. It's also Shakespeare et al. I was wondering if you had any tips that might help me understand what's going on so as to help me enjoy the literature more readily.

I've thought that Cliffnotes or kin might help, but that doesn't sound very fun.

I've recently graduated high school and I can just imagine my literature teacher offering his sage advice in the form of "Just Do It." Who knows, maybe that's the answer! Let me know what you think.

I'm asking for any tips as well as any motivation you might offer me. I want to do this!
posted by makethemost to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Dickens' writing style is an artifact of his time and the fact that his novels were published as serials, for which he was paid by the word.

So, it is more verbose than more current literature. (For the most part.)

One strategy would be to read in front of a computer, so that you can google words you don't know easily.

As for Shakespeare--he's writing in a much older form of English. Reading him is almost like teaching yourself a new language.
posted by dfriedman at 8:41 PM on July 27, 2010

Watch a movie version. Try to find one that sticks close to the original plot. I tried several times to read Jane Austen to no avail and then they released the Keira Knightly version of Pride and Prejudice and I got through that one (and fully understood it) in less than a day. Oh, Mr. Darcy...
This works particularly well with Shakespeare and other plays. Without the meat of novel form, you lack the in-depth descriptions of emotions and further motivations of the characters and have to decipher the tone of a scene based solely on the dialogue. A hard to understand dialogue at that. Better yet, for Shakespeare, go see a live production.
posted by Carlotta Bananas at 8:48 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

It helps me to also read contemporary literature set in the same period (stuff like Thomas Pynchon's "Mason & Dixon" or Patrick O'Brian's "Master and Commander"), or contemporary non-fiction history about the period. Then I can learn some of the background and language from someone whose point of view is closer to mine, who will explain things that Dickens' or Shakespeare's readers would have known without explanation. And in general, the more you read from or about a period, the easier it gets.
posted by mbrubeck at 8:56 PM on July 27, 2010

Two things always help me out. One is to read passages out loud. It feels awkward at first, but I find that it really helps untangle some of the more archaic syntax. The other is to take notes. Keep a notebook and pen next to you and jot down character names, important plot points, settings, unfamiliar words, etc. I find that this helps me both remember things better and works as a reference for writing papers or if I put a book down and pick it back up at a later date.

Most of all, don't be discouraged. I've read about two pages an hour at times. Read as slow as you need, or reread passages as many times as you need. The goal is to understand.

I would try to stay away from easy crutches like online dictionaries or cliffnotes. I find that having to slog through a big dictionary or write down little biographies for every character greatly increases reading comprehension in the long run. It seems arduous at first, but you'd be amazed at the skills you build.
posted by fryman at 8:57 PM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

How to read a difficult book.
posted by betweenthebars at 9:04 PM on July 27, 2010 [7 favorites]

Don't be too hard on yourself.

I think reading Dickens is tougher than reading Shakespeare, Milton, Pepys, Defoe, Richardson, Johnson, Austen, etc. right up through Joyce's Ulysses.

I'm not sure I can say why, except that it was like climbing up stairs with a random pattern of riser heights blindfolded. He always did something different with the next part of the sentence or paragraph than I was expecting, and I had to slow way down and shift the weight of my attention forward very tentatively.

His vivid imagery and inventive prose style were rewarding, but only barely sufficiently (the characters often made my skin crawl), and only A Tale of Two Cities makes it onto my list to re-read before I die.
posted by jamjam at 9:18 PM on July 27, 2010

I don't think your lit teach was totally wrong. 'Just do it' would work, if you just do it the right way. I also think that Dickens uses very flowery language, and sometimes he uses that language to stall the story. Remember, he was getting paid by the word if that makes you fell better. But I like Dickens. His stories are complex and sometimes he takes weird short cuts to resolve a plot at the time the serial is supposed to end, (he usually published only a chapter a month), but I like Dickens (I think he created many great characters . "Bleak House" isn't the best place to start though; I'd suggest "Tail of Two Cities", "Copperfield", and maybe "Pickwick" first. Because of the reason Dickens wrote and the market he wrote for, he is more difficult than Austen and even Scott who were much earlier, their works might be more rewarding to you.

When you read modern works do you drop everything and look up each unknown word you come across? I don't, and I come across many I don't know still. Rather than do that read on and see if you can get the meaning from the context, mark the word with a dot and look them up when you have a whole collection. That will keep you in the story better.

That suggestion is for Victorian novels, not for Shakespeare. Shakespeare was writing in an almost completely different language from the one you use, and even some of the words you think you know have different meanings. And he was writing plays, get the CDs and watch them, the actors, with tone and with motions, are going to help you with the meanings and that is just exactly what Will (we're on a first name basis.) wanted them to do too.

But yeah, just do it, but do it slowly, at a pace that you enjoy. All of these things were written as entertainments.
posted by Some1 at 9:21 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a fan of taking it to Wikipedia if I'm getting turned around by stuff like plot and character (or questions about some archaic reference that makes no sense to me). Most of the really popular canonical works have a Wikipedia page with a plot synopsis and breakdown of major characters. This is great for Dickens and Tolstoy and other writers of sweeping novels with dozens of characters each with their own subplots.

I'm confused a little, though, if your issue is language (not knowing a vocabulary word, untangling Shakespearean verse) or overall comprehension of the plots, characters, themes and the like. Those are two really different issues which will have different solutions.

Also, I don't really know why you want to read these books. It seems like a lot of work, and it's not clear that you're enjoying yourself. There are millions of books out there - you needn't read Shakespeare and Dickens if you don't get anything out of them.
posted by Sara C. at 9:24 PM on July 27, 2010

I can just imagine my literature teacher offering his sage advice in the form of "Just Do It." Who knows, maybe that's the answer!

I believe that may well be the answer.

The bonus will be that you'll pick up on a few new words, and likely some nuance in words you're already familiar with.

That said: Dickens? ugh.
posted by pompomtom at 9:26 PM on July 27, 2010

Practice, practice, practice.

It's similar to (but not as difficult as) learning a second language. You might google words or ideas that are just bugging you to no end, but many of the ideas will get clearer as you see them in different contexts.

And also, like language, transliterating some of the concepts (a la Wiki articles, cliff notes, etc.) takes a lot of the interest out of them, and sometimes fails to take into account the differing cultural norms behind them. For example, the Bertie Wooster / Jeeves stories by P.G. Wodehouse. Half of them seem to revolve around a plot idea that would be somewhat incomprehensible today - the idea that a man couldn't break an engagement to a woman without a great deal of embarassment (but apparently a woman could break an engagement rather easily). This is the assumption Wodehouse started with - he was satirizing it, but it was a familiar concept to his audience (at least initially - one strange thing about Wodehouse is he wrote all through the 20th century without his characters keeping up with the times, so toward the end he was writing in the '70s about characters who seemed to be in a vague timeframe before WWII).

Also, some authors are just easier to follow and more interesting, regardless of the timeframe. Give books a chance, especially if they're classics, but unless you have to read them for school or something, nothing says you HAVE to finish a book.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:26 PM on July 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

There is absolutely no shame, in my opinion, of reading plot synopses before tackling a book that you're finding a bit daunting.

Nice thing about CliffNotes-type publications is that they usually list a cast of characters with very brief relational descriptions. Even just having that handy (heck, rip it out and use it as your bookmark) can help keep you on track with less distraction.

Seconding reading out loud. It really helps make the language fall into place.

I also often read through a book quickly the first time, almost skimming. When I finish, I flip it right back over and start again, reading carefully.
posted by desuetude at 9:27 PM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

A lot of my favorite older books, I like because I read them first as Classics Illustrated. The series of them that came out in the early 90s is quite faithful to the original plots and in many cases the art is actually really cool. As an example, I read Great Expectations first as a comic which meant that when I read it as a book, I already knew the plot and could focus on the language and characterizations. I already had decent mental pictures of who the main characters were so they were easier to keep track of.

I think watching BBC adaptations is just as good in some cases, but I find the comics more fun, and for some reason it feels like less of a cheat to me to read a comic instead of watching a movie. Except for Shakespeare - for Shakespeare, you have the advantage of multiple adaptations! Try reading Hamlet after you've watched six different performances of Hamlet. You'll have new appreciation for the nuances and subtleties of the scripts Shakespeare put together. In his case, all you get is a script and some stage directions, so a movie will have little trouble being faithful to the original work.
posted by little light-giver at 9:37 PM on July 27, 2010

I don't know if it's in your price range, but having an ebook reader that lets you look up definitions, references and notes on the fly really helps with certain types of books (particularly Russian novels, with the various nicknames, and books like "Anathem," with ridiculous amounts of philosophical constructs).

When I read "Demons," I printed out and laminated a bookmark that included every character's name, with every variation. It helped a lot.
posted by timoni at 10:05 PM on July 27, 2010

There are some good suggestions above. Doing the quick read first and allowing yourself not to fully comprehend everything you're reading is a good technique in general, though it may get frustrating with a tome the size of Bleak House. Reading plot summaries (e.g. at SparkNotes) before reading the book is OK. And reading/watching adaptations before reading the book can be a lot of fun, and give you extra motivation to read: there's a fantastic miniseries adaptation of Bleak House that you can get on DVD. To be honest, Dickens isn't really my cup of darjeeling, and I didn't get very far through Bleak House on my first attempt at reading it, but after watching the miniseries I was scrambling through the book saying "Does Dickens really write that? Does Krook really ______? Does Esther really _______?!"

Here are a few more techniques for comprehending novels and plays:

1. Write a précis as you go. After you finish each chapter (or scene in a play), write down the most important things that happened to advance the plot. Don't write a laboriously thorough summary--try to distill the action down to the 1-3 points that you think are most likely to affect how the rest of the story plays out. When I do this, I usually allow myself just one line of ruled notebook paper to jot down my summary of each chapter or scene. (Abbreviations for character names allow the summaries to be very compressed.)

2. Draw a character map/chart/diagram as you read. This is easiest for plays, which usually provide a list of dramatis personae, but you can do it for novels as well. Get a blank sheet of paper and write down the names of characters as you encounter them. Don't just make a list--spread them out on the page so that you can use graphical symbols to track their relationships. Draw lines between related characters and jot down the nature of the relationship (cousins, business partners, etc.). Draw shapes around the characters' names to indicate other information about them (circles for women and squares for men, or a crown shape around the character of the king, or squiggly lines for underworld characters and smooth lines for upper-class characters--whatever strikes you as useful information to represent symbolically). Arrange characters in clusters on the page according to their families, locations, social classes, or whatever classification seems relevant. Draw big Xs through characters that die in the course of the story. Discard and re-draw the chart as you go to accommodate your expanding knowledge of the characters.

3. Keep a word list. It's frustrating when you see the word "curricle" and know you've looked it up before, but can't remember what it means. Keeping a complete list of all the words you look up might be too labor-intensive, but if you find yourself looking up a word repeatedly, or if one just strikes you as interesting, jot it down with a brief definition. The inside cover of the book makes a great place to write your word list, if you own the book. Don't do this with library books. Please.
posted by Orinda at 10:40 PM on July 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

I know the problem of getting lost in the dictionary and how that derails the flow of reading. Haven't used it myself but here's a Firefox plugin SearchBastard that might make things quicker. (If you use Firefox, of course.) I was hoping to find one where you could just right-click on a word and get the definition, if you're reading online, as opposed to typing in the word you're searching for; I couldn't find that in a quick Google search but it ought to be possible.
posted by XMLicious at 11:25 PM on July 27, 2010

I've found that getting through classic literature can be chore if you're not familiar with the world in which the author(s) lived and wrote. If you can, look for Noton Critical Editions of classic literature. Barnes & Nobles publishes a line of Classics that include essays and commentary by literature professors that help contextualize the work for comtemporary readers.
posted by KingEdRa at 12:35 AM on July 28, 2010

The thing about Shakespeare is that it was written to be performed, and not really read. You'll have a much easier time of it if you see a live performance or a DVD first. When you see a Shakespeare play being performed by actors who know a.) what they're saying and b.) why, you might not comprehend every single word, but you'll get the story and the relationships between the characters. Then when you go back and read the text, you'll have a much better idea of what's going on.

I wouldn't go with Cliff's Notes or similiar things for reading Shakespeare, unless you need some clarification on, say, the characters. (Some of the histories in particular can get really confusing.) What I'd recommend is a good annotated edition of the play(s) you're reading, with the unusual words or expressions explained either inline or at the bottom of the page. If you get really stuck, there's always the excellent Shakespeare's Words by David and Ben Crystal--it's a huge glossary of all the words in the plays that might be unfamiliar to a modern reader.

Last but not least, the big secret of reading Shakespeare: You're not going to get it all at once or completely, and you shouldn't feel bad about it in the least. Let me put it this way--I've got bachelor's and master's degrees in this stuff and am working on a PhD, and I still need to have footnotes or a dictionary if I'm looking through a play I haven't read in a while. (And I'm just an average sort-of academic. There are people much, much more knowledgeable than me who've been arguing about things like what one single line in The Merchant of Venice means for decades.) Keep at it, though, and you'll be rewarded with some of the best writing in the English language.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:31 AM on July 28, 2010

after watching the miniseries I was scrambling through the book saying "Does Dickens really write that? Does Krook really ______? Does Esther really _______?!"

I felt exactly the same after watching the recent BBC miniseries of Little Dorrit. Especially the casting of Freema Agyeman as Tatty Coram - I was fascinated by the racial implications and wondered how much of that was poetic license and how much Dickens really wrote the character as non-white. Which led me to pick up Little Dorrit. Which I turned out to enjoy quite a bit (and, yeah, the "Tatty Coram is black" thing holds up surprisingly well).
posted by Sara C. at 5:26 AM on July 28, 2010

I've always liked the editions of Shakespeare that have the text on the right-hand page and notes on the left-hand page that explain archaic words and and give cultural context and things like that. (The New Folger Shakespeares were the ones I used back in high school and quite liked.) They give the right amount of information for a casual reader to understand the text, without bogging down in endless footnotes.

It's often helpful to read the SparkNotes summaries, and they often have lists of characters that you can just print off.

Also, some of these are more "readable" than others. I find Shakespeare's Julius Caesar a page-turner, even when not performed or read aloud. Other Shakespeare relies a lot more on performance. Trying a few different pieces by particular authors until one "clicks" for you may help. Once you're being carried along by the plot and can't wait to see what happens (spoiler alert: Caesar dies), you worry less about the hard words and pick up more information from context.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:22 AM on July 28, 2010

People still read Dickens and Shakespeare because they have universal themes and emotions that we all respond to. In addition to the cultural background of the setting, getting a little preview as to the theme of a book can really help you connect with the story more.

Also, I see that you just graduated high school. When I was in high school, I "read" Dickens. I read every word and could answer comprehension questions, but I had absolutely no interaction with the text and hated it. I was assigned Dickens in college and had the same experience. In grad school, I picked up some Dickens and was laughing out loud within 20 pages. The more you're exposed to great literature and the more you experience in life, the more you're going to enjoy your reading. Have fun!
posted by CuriousGeorge at 6:59 AM on July 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

This might sound like heresy as a former English grad student (in Victorian literature, no less), but I made my way through long 19th century novels by focusing more on the plot than the often pages-long descriptions of the settings. Obviously, these passages are integral parts of the books and provide essential historical and thematic details, but I often need to find out what exactly is going on at Chancery (and what the hell it is) on the first reading before I can appreciate why it's so damn muddy in the second.

It took me about five tries to get through Middlemarch: boring, boring, boring, boring, BEST BOOK EVER! So there's something to be said for practice too.
posted by bibliowench at 7:17 AM on July 28, 2010

First of all, it's perfectly normal to find Conrad, Dickens, and Shakespeare difficult--it would be weird just somehow understands things out of nowhere! Bu , following your interest in these books, you'll make progress. Over your 20s and 30s, your capacity as a reader will grow and grow.

My advice is to use annotated editions. Someone already mentioned Norton. They have an edition of Bleak House, which has hard words explained on the bottom of the page. An intro section at the beginning explains what a court of chancery is and the other baffling legal terminology that you run into in the book.

Norton also has an edition of Shakespeare's complete works in 4 paperback volumes. It has glosses of hard words in the margin. I find the format and the level of annotation useful. For Shakespeare, there are a ton of choices of annotated editions--the hard part is finding the right balance, for your personal taste, between sufficient explanation and distracting overload (the volumes published by Arden, for example, for me, are not a good way to read a play because the notes are so lengthy that they completely break up the rhythm of reading).

Getting to Conrad, he writes with a really extravagant vocabulary--that's who he is and what he does. Again, you could use annotated editions (I have the Penguin for Nostromo, with good notes at the back). Or, you could wait a few years and come back to him with more confidence.

Walt Whitman says in Leaves of Grass:
"Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?"

posted by Paquda at 8:17 AM on July 28, 2010

Along with the other great suggestions in the thread so far, I'd mention a couple of other things.

First, end notes matter. The edition you get matters. I was just complaining here the other day that my copy of Bleak House (which I'm reading now too) has really useless notes; when I read Penguin editions of Pickwick and Nicholas Nickleby, and the OUP (I think) David Copperfield, the notes were rich, informative, and I felt like I'd actually gotten something out of reading them. Now, with Bleak House, if I have questions, I have to look elsewhere, because the notes are inconsistent, sometimes too brief, sometimes too obvious.

Second, there's a very fun reference work that has been mentioned before on these threads, which is my favorite I-can't-remember-what-this-card-game-or-carriage-is books: Daniel Pool's "What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew"...tons and tons of information about 19th-century life, but written in a way that's not overwhelming.

Also, one good thing about this book is that a lot of information gets repeated. If you don't understand a plot element the first time, you may be able to pick up on it when it's mentioned again, as it almost inevitably will be.
posted by mittens at 8:22 AM on July 28, 2010

My understanding is that it's not actually true that Dickens was paid by the word. But there's a reason that information has achieved the status of fact in our culture: it feels true. Dickens' novels are so overstuffed with details, descriptions, characters, and words that it can be really difficult to keep track of everything, and I'm speaking as someone getting an English PhD.

So my suggestion is that you give yourself a little bit of a break. A book by Dickens, or Eliot, or Melville has so much going on that you're not going to get it all on a first reading anyway. Give yourself permission not to understand everything as you go along, especially since it sounds like you're reading for fun, not for class. Just plow through like you would reading anything else; it's a big sea of words and ideas, and the important stuff will rise to the surface. This strategy, of not worrying about keeping track of every detail and just reading a difficult book like it's a cheap novel, is how I managed to turn Gravity's Rainbow into a beach book. Realizing that you get to decide how much you need to get out of a book is pretty liberating, actually.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:30 AM on July 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a big fan of taking notes. Just jotting down the characters' names with some identifying information can be really helpful.

It's hard to both follow a story and be constantly looking up words. But fortunately, the number of odd words used in Victorian literature is finite. You only have to look up "saturnine" once, or "dyspeptic."

The more of this stuff you read, the easier the reading will become. The second Dickens novel will be so much easier to get through than the first. Heck, even the second half of this Dickens novel will be easier than the first.

In fact, if you're completely lost, but dead set on finishing this particular book, I recommend just going back to the beginning and starting again. I think you'll find that you can follow it much better, now that you have laid the groundwork for yourself.
posted by ErikaB at 9:54 AM on July 28, 2010

If this is a long term project start by reading authors or works that are more recent, accessible and that you actually enjoy. For example, after high school I read everything by Somerset Maughm, Daphne du Maurier and the like. Over time you will find you want and are able to tackle more difficult stuff.
posted by canoehead at 12:43 PM on July 28, 2010

desuetude and others above have it - read aloud and read fairly quickly. Here's why:

The more slowly you read (stopping to look words up), the more you disconnect yourself from the thread of narrative. Your brain is a context-building machine, and can intuit most unknown words by the surrounding text, provided you keep reading at an adequate speed.

I discovered this by accident in my Spanish lit class, when I was rushing to "finish" a reading assignment before class. To my surprise, I had better comprehension of the piece I read fast than of the ones I read carefully, looking up vocabulary.

My discovery was confirmed when I was studying for my Reading Instruction certificate. Turns out that keeping up speed is vital to reading comprehension, otherwise you get distracted and forget what's happening in the story.
posted by toodleydoodley at 3:32 PM on July 28, 2010

Dickens and most 19th century literature will get a lot easier after the first few books. Just read it straight through, focus on big picture (plot, major characters, etc). Read another one or two and come back. And make sure you don't miss David Copperfield!
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 3:39 PM on July 28, 2010

Thanks for the suggestions, fellows. I'm always looking to broaden my horizons -- and with your help it might be possible! Godspeed, everyone.
posted by makethemost at 10:31 PM on July 29, 2010

I am late to this, but what the could try easing in by reading some contemporary novels that utilize the similar settings, in order to gain some of the understanding of context that would help make Dickens less of a chore to plow through. (The Dress Lodger, or Jonthan Strange and Mr. Norrel, say.) And for Dickens himself --- I might suggest teeing up A Christmas Carol rather than Bleak House as a first go. You're already broadly familiar with the story, but there's a surprising amount of detail in there that never makes it to any of the TV or movie versions I've seen, and reading it might give you a better feel for Dickens' sentence structures and vocab and humor. Plus it's only like 80 pages, so even if it drags you shan't be daunted.

Last, I might suggest, you know, trying someone else. Beating yourself over the head with something for the sake of having read it will never make you love it. When I was about 16 to 18 or so I remember feeling that compulsion, to sort of catch up on culture, swallow it up, that there were all these books I ought to read to be an educated person. And to a certain extent that's true, but it still didn't get me past Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. Even now I think the poor bastard would bore me to tears. But there's a lot of other work from that time and era that I do like. So if Dickens ain't doing it for you, try Thackeray. (He's a much more cynical bastard and a lot more fun. Still lots of skim-worthy passages in Vanity Fair, though.) Or Flaubert, Eliot, Bronte, Tolstoy, Austen.

Or perhaps go with Stoker or Shelly --- Stoker ain't quite as good a writer as some of the others. But his creation spawned a whole little mini-culture within our own; going back to the Ur-text in a case like that can be fascinating, to see what spots in the original are darker or lighter than our modern rendering. (It's the same with Ms. Wonderly walking into Sam Spade's office in The Maltese Falcon.)
posted by Diablevert at 9:13 AM on August 1, 2010

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