Is it ok if I just eat the blossoms
September 24, 2012 3:18 PM   Subscribe

What are your tricks specific to getting through tough literature?

I figured out recently that all the egg heads I hang out with have enviable vocabularies because they take notes in their books of the words they don't already know. As in, they highlight the word and write down its definition IN THE BOOK. This blew my mind.

Are there other tricks for getting through tough reads? I may or may not be stalling out with Gravity's Rainbow, currently.

Anything that keeps you interested, learning, and motivated to keep going when the prose gets long, convoluted, and insane would be very much appreciated.
posted by skrozidile to Grab Bag (31 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Specifically, I read Gravity's Rainbow with A Gravity's Rainbow Compaion propped open next to me.
posted by carsonb at 3:25 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

In college, a philosophy professor advised us to adopt this approach to long, difficult books like Hegel's Phenomenology: just keep going. Don't be disturbed that you don't understand anything you are reading, but instead have faith that you will later. I guess the "trick" is focusing on the last part. He also said to read them 3 times.
posted by thelonius at 3:35 PM on September 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

I used to buy the cheapest secondhand copy of a book and basically destroy it with highlighting, underlining, scribbling and covering it in post-it notes. It's a bit like a seamstress unpicking a complicated dress to understand how it was put together; or a mechanic taking apart an engine, etc. (Choose your own metaphor.) This only really works with literature for which many cheap secondhand copies are available, because I wouldn't otherwise recommend destroying a book!
posted by pink_gorilla at 3:38 PM on September 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

My strategy is to read the book more than once.

The first time, just keep reading, and don't worry about what you're missing. Then read about the book-- some plot summaries to see if you missed anything important, maybe some literary criticism about the book, etc.; read a lot.

Then reread the book a second time, making notes of the places where you don't understand words or things. Study those things if you care, or ignore them if you don't.

Over time, go back to reread a third (or fourth or fifth) time different parts that intrigue or bewitch or confuse you.

That, at least, is how I read Ada, by Vladimir Nabokov. With a lot of books I don't get past the first time, but that's because I don't like them enough.
posted by willbaude at 3:40 PM on September 24, 2012 [7 favorites]

I read a lot of weird, difficult books. My strategy:

(1) Don't worry if you don't understand something. Just read it and move on. Keep going. Don't get bogged down in, e.g., a weird surreal interlude, or a really long paragraph with no punctuation. Just keep going.

(2) Keep some light reading on the side. Keep the thick tome for the commute or the daytime; at night before you're going to bed, read a light novel, a thriller or a romance novel. Heavy reading is not for all the time.
posted by Ziggy500 at 3:48 PM on September 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

It depends on the book.

For most cases, I take the advice I got from Linus in a PEANUTS strip -- Lucy sees him reading "War and Peace," and remarks on him reading such a difficult book. "What do you do when you run into a complicated word, like a Russian word, that you don't understand?" she asks. Linus answers that he "just bleeps it out." If there's a word or concept that I just can't grasp, I just skip over it and don't worry about it, and try to work around it; sometimes the context of the rest of the book is good enough, and it's infrequent enough, that it's no great loss.

Sometimes, I simply have to forgive myself and give up. I had to do that with Madame Bovary and Proust; I tried reading both for fun in college, and simply couldn't get into them because they were too dense and impenetrable. I just put them aside and gave up, forgave myself, and figured I'd get around to them on another day.

Joyce's Ulysses was a special case; it was a COMPLETE mindfuck the first few times I tried reading it, because the language was so rich and interesting that I didn't want to just "bleep out" what I didn't get, but I didn't get it and I got too bogged down in "but what the FUCK" that it railroaded me the first three times I read it. Then I learned that the reason that Joyce had picked that specific date to commemorate in the book was because it was his first date with his wife, and the book was full of all these references to people they knew and places they went to and scenes from their life. So then I tried reading it again, and whenever I came to a reference to a person or a place or a thing that I didn't understand, I just shrugged and figured "It must be one of the in-jokes" and didn't worry about it, and it let me finally finish the thing. I need to go back and re-read it again and see if I pick up any more now, but at least I'm not getting as bogged down in"what the fuck?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:49 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I find that its helpful to have someone else around who either knows the book really well or is currently reading it. This was useful for me in specific with Gravitys Rainbow so I could ask "Is this little bit important or is it just wankery and I can skip it?" when I'd get to a place that made zero sense to me.
posted by jessamyn at 3:50 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I started graduate school, my advisor told me the first time he read the Frankfurt School (what I was studying too), he cried. As in literally cried on his bed. So, hearing that an incredibly smart person had difficulty with something similar really helped me.

Other than that, what others have said makes sense, though it's work: read, read secondary literature, re-read. Gravity's Rainbow gave me a lot of trouble and reading summaries after, where it sounds like it should have been simple and accessible were frustrating.

For what it's worth, I started a blog on Infinite Jest to help people with difficulties - a word of the day sort of thing, with entries taken from the novel.
posted by iftheaccidentwill at 3:52 PM on September 24, 2012

In college, a philosophy professor advised us to adopt this approach to long, difficult books like Hegel's Phenomenology: just keep going.

Just keep going is my philosophy also. I initially tried to read Gravity's Rainbow with Weisenburger and the wiki open at all times, but I found myself being taken out of the story so much I had even less idea what was going on. Get through it once, then go back with the fine tooth comb if it really speaks to you.

Weisenburger's companion to Gravity's Rainbow mentioned above is brilliant and indispensible, don't get me wrong. My problem was if I stopped to look up every reference, I'dve never finished the book itself.
posted by Lorin at 3:59 PM on September 24, 2012

I use a bit of a lot of the methods mentioned above. I highlight words. I look up words (sometimes -- Kindles are great for that). I bleep out words I just don't understand. And I've never met a book I could only read once.

I also found that if I absolutely have to read a book (like, say, for class) and I absolutely cannot make myself read it, listening to it is a great option - if available. Sometimes I can process it better if I *hear* it rather than try to *read* it. It got me through my comprehensive exam, let me tell you that.
posted by patheral at 3:59 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I come from the other side of the table where it's instinctive for me to 'just keep going' and 'bleep out' things I don't understand, to the point that I can 'finish' a book only to find that I got less out of it than I could have. I need to be slowed down and to force myself to try a little harder to understand what's going on.

In order to do that I made reading a much more active activity. I read sitting at a desk, and I take notes either in the text (preferred) or in a separate notebook. Because doing this kind of sucks (compared to curling up by the fire with a cup of cocoa and enjoying a page turner), I also break the book up into chunks and limit each session to one of these (e.g. a chapter).
posted by telegraph at 4:06 PM on September 24, 2012

I always keep in mind the bit from Peep Show where Mark teaches Jez to read so that he can impress a girl at her book club.

("Oh, turn the telly off! Everything bad starts with turning the telly off!")
posted by easy, lucky, free at 4:10 PM on September 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Seconding audiobooks, with a portable player -- I tend to be a very distractible reader, and find that many "difficult" books present so many opportunities for distraction that I end up putting the book down before I've become engrossed in the story. Listening to a book on a long walk is not only joyful and relaxing, but helps me to catch the beauty of the language and the sense and mystery of the plot without getting hung up on all sorts of snags. Plus, I can read the book again, in physical form, without the feeling that I'm repeating the exact same experience.
posted by inkfish at 4:31 PM on September 24, 2012

I have a reading queue well over a thousand books long. I will, in all likelihood, never finish what I have now.

Unless I need to read something specifically for educational purposes, if I don't "like" a book by 50 pages in, I toss it.

Don't get me wrong, I don't mind "challenging" reading material (I read Science and The Economist as my "bathroom literature") - But when something just doesn't keep my interest and I find my attention wandering and I need to re-read entire paragraphs twice per page... After a while, I decide that I have plenty of other choices for my leisure-reading.

/ And don't even get me started on Finnegan's. Ugh.
posted by pla at 5:14 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I got through Tolstoy and Dostoevsky by skimming across any name that did not belong to one of the five or six principal characters.

I got through Ulysses and Finnigans Wake by starting each reading session reading aloud until my larynx tired, then reading silent until my eyes and / or brains tired.

I never got more than halfway through Proust or Infinite Jest trying these and all the other tricks in this thread and on other tricks lists.
posted by bukvich at 5:19 PM on September 24, 2012

I bought Gravity's Rainbow when it first came out because I had absolutely loved the Crying of Lot 49, but had a very hard time getting started in GR.

It sat around the house for a year unread but getting a little dog-eared from being handled so often, and then I picked it up one day and read about 60 pages somewhere in the middle, found the language intensely beautiful to a degree nothing in Crying (or anything else!) had prepared me for, and continued to read it that way for maybe two weeks until one day I found myself frantically paging through it looking for a passage I hadn't read already, and realized with keen disappointment that I'd read the whole thing-- after which I dreamed a couple of times of a bunch of pages stuck together and that I still had a lot more to go.
posted by jamjam at 5:29 PM on September 24, 2012

Lit Major here. Where you can, watch the movie first.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:57 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've made it through a few big hard difficult books by just being shameless about browsing. Like: open to a random page, read until I lose interest, stop. But keep the book right there on the bedside table or whatever, and go browsing around in it every time I get the chance. Eventually I'd end up having read all of it, and having some sense of what was going on.

Seems to work especially well for stuff that is sort of hairy and nonlinear anyway. I'll admit I've never made it through GR, but if I really decided I had to, that's how I'd approach it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:09 PM on September 24, 2012

A reading group is super helpful for the big epics. Others will share insights you've missed, plus the process of discussion will help you put your own thoughts together. Obviously local friends are best, but there are also some great online book club projects like Infinite Zombies. Even if they've already read the title you want, you can still read along chapter by chapter using the past forums.
posted by susanvance at 6:11 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'll assume you're not reading "Gravity's Rainbow" for a class - i.e. you don't HAVE to finish it.

It's OK to walk away from a book or any work of art that just isn't doing it for you. I think Roger Ebert once said that if after the first reel (10 minutes) a film hadn't grabbed you, you were more than entitled to find something better to do with your time. I walked away from "Gravity's Rainbow" - I simply was not interested enough to hang in there, and what I could get through, I found depressing.

Other tough reads, I stick with because SOMETHING keeps me going. Maybe there's a character whose story I want to follow, maybe there's an element of puzzle that I want to keep unravelling.

If you're reading something difficult for pleasure (!) and find there is something that makes you want to keep going, just get through it. Skim if you have to. Then dive back into the really hard parts later. Tough reads by the masters often have really interesting, entertaining commentaries written about them: you can use one of those as a companion.
posted by Currer Belfry at 6:17 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Recovering poetry MFA here. It took me awhile of teaching poetry to realize that my own method of reading--which works equally well for dense poems or post-modern literary works--isn't one that many students are used to utilizing. They tend to read in a deep, deliberate way, pausing and puzzling over works. This gets in the way of what I think of as surface meaning. It feels counter-intuitive, but surface meaning is easier to grasp if you read quickly and breezily. Read aloud if you have to. Read conversationally, colloquially. Think about the sounds of the words, the rhythms, and don't get too trapped up on the literal meaning or the symbolism implied (poetry students get all sorts of fucked up with symbolism; they've been trained to seek it out even on first readings, but honestly, good symbolism doesn't intrude and disrupt the surface meaning, anyway. It's more important to me to figure out what the poet is saying happened rather than what it means). Read this way, Ulysses isn't particularly dense; you just have to adapt to frequent stylistic changes. Likewise, books like Only Revolutions or The Dream Songs which seem to confound some readers.

I developed this method, incidentally, as an impatient adolescent reader of fantasy. Back then, I skipped anything in italics, whole sections of books that bored me, read out of order, all sorts of habits that would horrify writers. What I learned during that time was to skim for plot. I'm a more deliberate reader now, but I still think it's a valuable skill. It also means that you're not sweating over stuff you don't get or (frankly) stuff that's boring. Second Currer Belfry, too. You can just skip stuff that doesn't thrill you. That's valid, too.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:25 PM on September 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm a social reader, if that makes any sense. I find reading groups online, tackle a book with a friend and seek out blogs and essays about what I'm reading. I keep going when I'm faced with something I don't know so I will miss things, but someone else will pick up what I dropped and it's very likely that I'll figure something out that they missed.

I've given up on books where I found the challenges outweighed my enjoyment and I've straight up used Coles Notes at times where I had a hard time tracking characters and plot. I have a BA in English and I wouldn't have gotten there reading in a vacuum. There's lots out there to hold onto when things start going nuts in the text.

My other thing was a reading journal. Any time I read something and it would click, I'd write it down. Same with quotes that were important or words I needed to look up. I still use an actual notebook for this and the main reason I don't write in the book was because I would resell things when a class was over. Also, I can't imagine having enough room in the book to put my thoughts. I organize it by giving myself a few pages each chapter that way if in my classes or reading group someone else gives me an idea I have space to add on.
posted by GilvearSt at 7:26 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

For scientific papers, which no matter how fascinating the subject are often dry as dust to actually read, I have a few tricks. One is to have some coffee or a snack or something to help make the experience more enjoyable. Another is to listen to some brown noise through in-ear headphones. A third is the highlighting, mentioned above (I try not to worry too much about *what* I am highlighting, that way lies madness). The fourth is to walk around or pace up and down while reading.
posted by Scientist at 8:04 PM on September 24, 2012

Having someone to talk about a book with is definitely helpful. My boyfriend and I read Infinite Jest and The Power Broker together, and while I liked both, I would have probably gotten distracted if someone else hadn't been invested in my keeping up. Reading with him also helped keep me on a schedule, which I think was beneficial. I would set aside particular times to read my tough book--maybe a long subway ride or a slow lunch at work--and then spend some other time reading something less rigorous so my brain didn't completely burn out. (I've been devouring Agatha Christie novels lately, for instance.)

I'm an English major and an editor and would never dream of writing in the margins of books I read for fun though sometimes I do look up a word or two. I think it has to feel fun or there's no point. There's no shame if you don't make it through a particular book; there are lots of them out there!
posted by mlle valentine at 8:21 PM on September 24, 2012

English PhD here. Some good advice here. Key points I would say are, one: just plow through the most difficult bits, even if you don't understand them fully/much/at all. One of the biggest roadblocks to stereotypically "difficult" texts is the idea that you are meant to understand them perfectly immediately. Books like Finnegans Wake and Gravity's Rainbow are as much about the pleasure of the text as they are about "getting it." They're not Quentin Tarantino movies where if you figure out what's in the briefcase you, win the film.

Two: read them multiple times. David Harvey says of Capital (and he's right), that you don't even really know how to read the book until you've finished it, and then your reading of the opening sections will shift. Hard books are hard because they need new reading strategies to penetrate them, and often the only way to learn those is by reading the book itself. Read, then read again.

If you're having trouble doing either of the above, it's true that having friends or acquaintances to talk about the book is fun, but you should also know that you don't have to finish every book, even the ones everyone tells you are smart. A popular drinking game among literature academics (no jokes, please!) at conferences is "What haven't you read"--the idea is you admit the most embarrassing thing you haven't read, usually a book in your field. The results, from some of the most prestigious critics in the discipline, are always shocking ("Yeah, you know that monograph on Bleak House I wrote last year?" says famous Dickens scholar. "Never touched the novel. Didn't crack the spine." etc.)

And write in the margins! Underline, scribble, draw! Books are meant to be consumed, so: devour them.
posted by Catchfire at 8:47 PM on September 24, 2012

When I stall out on a difficult book, I usually set it aside for a few weeks or months, and then start over from the beginning. All of the benefits people mentioned for rereading above are very real, and I find that if I can start to "get" the book in the first familiar sections, the momentum will carry me through to the end.

If that doesn't work, I usually conclude that this book and I are simply not a good fit, and move on to the next one.
posted by psycheslamp at 9:08 PM on September 24, 2012

Seconding PhoBWanKenobi. When I was studying poetry I learned to read swiftly and breezily, because catching the flow of the poetry (in terms of meaning and style) is more important than the symbolism or "hard stuff," on first read. It's kind of amazing how a fastidious first reading often paralyzes you and obscures the sense of what you're reading. Plus, looking up the meaning of a word that confused you the first time later from a bird's-eye-view is usually more enlightening than looking it up when you don't know what the sentence it belongs in looks like yet.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:57 PM on September 24, 2012

I read Naked Lunch and didn't understand it but was very interested in figuring out what all the fuss is about with it. Plus, it has a very dreamy quality to it, albeit disturbing sexual violence, but I was certain that I was missing out on something deep and meaningful. During the second go around I was vacationing in Croatia and couldn't sleep but felt very very sleepy and as I was reading through it really hit me and I got it, or at least I got something and it was quite profound. So, I think being in a sleepy state of mind really helped get me to stop thinking so hard about what I was supposed to be getting out of it and just let it come in on it's own. Picking up the book when you are super alert may not always be a good idea!
posted by waving at 1:56 AM on September 25, 2012

This is something I struggled with for a long time, especially for old classics that are written in an unfamiliar, long-winded style. Eventually I figured out that if I watched the movie, the book just flowed naturally - I wasn't worried about 'missing' some crucial piece of information, or keeping the characters straight in my head, or figuring out who was important.

It's a ... bad fix, yes, but it was the only way I've been able to plow through some old ones. And for me, that is worth "cheating" a bit.
posted by amicamentis at 8:46 AM on September 25, 2012

I get guides to the book/author by looking in the public library's catalog for the author's name as the subject (so, e.g., for books about James Joyce's writings, I'd search for "Joyce, James" as the subject). You'll likely see some biographical stuff about the authors in your search results, but look for anything with the 800s at the beginning of the call number-- that's the section of nonfiction that deals with authors' actual works (so, in James' Joyce's case, it looks like 823.912 is a good place to look). Of course, titles you come across like The Cambridge Introduction to James Joyce or Ulysses in Critical Perspective are pretty good indicators too.

Books like How to Read a Book and Reading Like a Writer also helped me tackle more difficult stuff in a general way. Have fun!
posted by Rykey at 3:28 PM on September 25, 2012

Oh, and I never tire of recommending Academic Earth's online literature lectures.
posted by Rykey at 3:31 PM on September 25, 2012

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