Why Are Classics So Hard To Read? (& What To Do About It)
Classics are hard to read because of the writing style, the historical settings, narrative structures, and symbolism. To improve understanding, read an annotated version and research a book’s historical period. You can also read commentaries and watch a movie to grasp the concept.
The English language has transformed over the past thousand years. Grammar, vocabulary, idioms, styles, and slang have metamorphosized. Also, regional variations of language were extreme before the standardization of English. The further you go back in time with a text, the harder it is to read.
Do you have a classic that is collecting dust on your shelf?
Or, did your English professor assign you a Classic, and you don’t know where to begin?
This article is for you!
You will find out why Classics are so hard to read and what you can do about it.
Let’s dive in!
The sequence and style of writing have evolved
As language evolves, the style and structure change, word meaning transforms, and some words fall in and out of style.
Look at how English Literature has transformed over a few hundred years:
- Authors used Middle English before the 16th century. It resembles modern English, but it is challenging to read without annotations.
For instance, “A wys wyf, if that she can hir good.” A text by Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Wife of Bath” in The Canterbury Tales (1475).
- Modern English is Shakespeare. It has improved spelling but is still hard to read. You will notice excessive use of figurative language that is confusing for a modern reader.
For instance, “But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill.”
- Long, continuous, and illustrative sentence structures are in many 19th century texts or books. The sentences are inconsistent and confusing compared to the current sentence structure.
For example, “The ledge, where I placed my candle, had a few mildewed books piled up in one corner; and it was covered with writing scratched on the paint.” A text by Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847).
- 1940’s texts are more straightforward, more direct, and almost similar to recent texts. The structure is simple, but the meaning is not easy to translate.
Look at this sentence from George Orwell, Nineteen-Eighty-For (1949); “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past”.
- Texts for the ’80s have a disdain for punctuation and complex sentences. However, it is easy to comprehend the sentence structure and words.
“He stood an uneasy honoree and at length, he stepped back from the firelight, and the juggler rose and made a motion with the cards, sweeping them in a fan before him_” A text from Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian (1985).
Here’s how you can improve your understanding of sequence and style
Read an annotated edition
An annotated edition of a Classic will have marginal comments with explanations, interpretations, and illuminations of words and phrases.
An annotated version will help you engage with the complicated text. Keep a reader’s guide and dictionary next to you as you read. As such, you will understand confusing paragraphs and challenging words.
Struggling with grasping the concept of a text at first is normal. As such, you need to stick to reading to understand it. The characters, language, and setting will start to make sense as you move along the chapters.
If you decide to read a Classic without annotations, mark all the passages you don’t understand. Come back after you understand the immediate context of the book. Also, reading the book twice can help you understand what you missed.
Comment in the margins
Underlining passages is not always enough to understand a difficult passage or text. Write comments in the margins to immerse yourself in the text.
Here are some examples of how to write in the margins:
- Summarize the passages
- Disagree or agree with a passage
- Note down passages that relate with other passages (how they relate)
- Note down or answer queries you didn’t comprehend
2. The historical setting and culture are different
Authors write for people from their historical setting, not for people in the future. They know that their readers will understand the cultural and social contexts. However, social and cultural contexts change and books that last for centuries are hard to understand.
Most Classic books attack their time’s cultural, social, and religious convictions. So, it is crucial to understand which norms are under attack to grasp the context of the book.
Jane Austen’s books showcase the early 19th-century polished society. Ignorance of social norms at the time could make you miss hints that would be obvious to a reader in the 19th century. So, unschooled readers easily overlook the biting satire in Jane’s books.
Another example is Jane Eyre’s book, where Charlotte attacks the religious belief of charity. Jane is also very independent, which is appalling in Victorian society.
Here is how to understand a Classic’s culture and historical setting
Research on the book’s historical period
Read about the history of when the author wrote the book. The research will help you understand the author and the text. You will see the author’s influence on the book due to the events in that period.
So, cover the following in your research:
- Time setting
- Major events
- Geographical scope
- The groups of people focused on the book/text
It is crucial to look at the focus of the text.
Does it focus on politics, race, class, culture, law, or labor?
As such, it will help you research specific parts of history and understand historical arguments from a text.
3. Failing to understand the narrative structure
A narrative structure is how an author presents narrative elements to a reader. Most Classics will have a chain of events and story elements such as conflicts, protagonists, and settings.
The narrative structure can make it challenging for readers to know what the author discusses.
Understanding a book’s narrative structure means knowing why characters, plots, and writings are in the text. As such, you will have an easy time reading the book.
An author will connect a plot and what drives it. The author will take you through events and help you see why they matter. The narrative structure will also help you know the meaning of what’s happening.
Advantages of understanding the narrative structure include the following:
- Quickly understand the plot without confusion.
- You see how characters develop and what conflicts matter
- Receive a satisfying narrative experience
What are the types of narrative structures
The type of narrative structure will help you know what to expect. You will also grasp events at a faster rate.
Here are types of narrative structures:
- Linear/chronological: The author delivers a plot chronologically. The author tells events to occur with a few flashbacks here and there.
- Circular: Circular narrative ends the story where it started. The start and the finish are the same, but you will see how characters develop.
- Non-linear/fractured: Fractured structures don’t follow a chronological order. Instead, they jump through timelines in a mixed-up manner.
- Parallel: Parallel structures use characters, events, or themes to tie together multiple storylines.
How to understand the narrative structure
Go through the book’s summaries
There are Classic book summaries online. Summaries are people’s interpretations of what happens in the book. Read the summaries and descriptions to know the basic concept of the book.
You could also read the book’s back cover that summarizes what the author discusses.
You will have a bit of information on the setting, plot, and characters, making it easy to follow and understand the Classic.
Remember that a summary can be objective and biased towards meaning and character motives. So, have an open mind while going through these summaries.
Skim through the content
Reading a Classic is hard. Skimming will help you understand the basic concept. You will also know the plot, characters, and settings.
The best way to skim a book is by:
- Reading the first and last sentence of each page to understand a chapter
- Reading the start and ending paragraphs of a chapter to familiarize yourself with the book
A person who has read a Classic will help you piece together content. So, ask questions based on the following:
- Plot: What happens in the book or text?
- Setting: The time, place, and culture in which the author writes the book
- Characters: Who are the people or animals in the book?
- Theme: What is the basic concept, belief, or idea from the entire Classic?
- Conflict: Which encounter brings tension in the book?
- Narrator: Who narrates the story?
- Climax: At which point must the conflict be resolved?
4. The use of symbolism
Symbolism is hard to grasp, especially for Classics. Authors use symbolism to deepen the ideas and themes in a book. However, if you cant recognize symbolism in a text, you miss out on a lot.
Here’s how you can understand the symbolism
Read and learn with a group
Learning with other people will help you grasp concepts you missed when reading alone. Enrolling in a literature class or joining a book club will give other people’s perspectives of the book. You will understand and retain information and get valuable insight into the symbolic texts of the book.
You can find a local book club by searching on the internet. If enrolling in a class isn’t an option, try joining a massive open online course. The courses are affordable and sometimes accessible.
Write a summary
After finishing a chapter:
- Write a summary of everything necessary.
- Ensure the summary is less than half a page and address the crucial plot points that affect characters.
- Note down how the chapter fits in with the whole book.
- Read the summaries to help you grasp what you didn’t understand at first.
Watch a film
A film version of a classic could be the solution to understanding any symbolism or concepts you missed. You will see the story, the characters, and the time of the Classic.
Hearing words and seeing characters dressed could improve your understanding and make the Classic enjoyable.
Films are best for Classics such as Shakespeare, which were meant for stage or reading. Also, films based on Jane Austen’s books help you understand characters and their emotions.
Read the book’s critical analyses and commentary online
Learn other people’s perspectives online on different websites. The commentaries will include symbols, themes, characters, plot, and other aspects. Reading what other people interpret from the book will help you think deeper.
5. The purpose of the original publication
The purpose of the original publication is an overlooked factor that affects how you read a Classic. Many authors wrote Classics in a different format from what you read today.
Shakespeare was a play meant for the stage, not for classrooms.
Other Classics with a different format from the publication are 19th-century epics. These epics were published in a serialized format, and the writer got paid by the word. As such, the pay encouraged writers to write more and more.
Writers weren’t keen on writing chapter to chapter since their stories jumped from one perspective to another. The stories were not in novel form as they are today.
Understanding the purpose of the original publication will give you a deeper meaning of the concept.
Here’s how to get the context of the original publication
Read the original publication
Reading the original text will change your experience. Revert to what the text was meant for in the first place. For instance, instead of reading Shakespeare, watch a play or movie. As such, you will get a rich and full experience from the Classic.
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Classics are so hard to read because you don’t have context. You didn’t exist when authors were writing Classics and weren’t aware of the religious or social problems at the time.
Additionally, language evolves. The grammatical structure and style from a classic are hard for a modern reader to grasp.
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Our online Maximizing Memory Course improves your memory and understanding as you read. The course covers practical techniques that help you remember what you read and memorize essential information.
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