By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.
If you’re a student of any age, you’re going to read hard books for school. This is a fact of life. But whether you consider yourself a good reader or not, reading hard books will always take more effort and sometimes different approaches than reading other types of books. In this post, I teach you how to read hard books with 7 strategies.
How to read hard books
The strategies below will help you get through difficult novels, including non-fiction, fiction, and biographies.
1. Prime yourself with background knowledge.
Priming is a strategy that involves getting a brief overview of the topic you’ll be reading about before you read it, so that what you read has a place to “stick” in your mind. Why is this important? Because the more you know about a subject, the better you’ll be able to process and understand new information about that subject.
Think of it this way: If you’ve eaten an orange before, you’ll have an easier time describing the flavor of a grapefruit the first time you eat a grapefruit. Understanding the orange’s flavor (sweet, tart, citrus-y) helps you categorize and experience the flavor of a grapefruit.
How to prime before reading:
- Google the book summary, themes, etc.
- Google the author
- Google the topic
- Google the time period / context
2. Go slower.
Reading hard books is hard, and hard things often take longer to do. This is normal, and you should expect to read a hard book slower than you’d like to.
When you’re facing difficult text, plan to take 1.5 times as long to read it than if it were less challenging text. Build this time into your calendar and into your daily and weekly study plan so it doesn’t catch you off guard.
Reading hard books takes longer for a few reasons. A text can be challenging because of its topic, its language, the time period it was written in, your unfamiliarity with the material, and your personal (dis)interest in it (its relevance to you). If more than one of these factors is at play, the book may seem even harder.
Also, if you use any of the other strategies in this list – which you should – you will be forced to go slower anyways. Using reading comprehension strategies slow you down by default because the goal is comprehension, not speed.
3. Paraphrase and summarize as you read.
Paraphrasing and summarizing are different, and both can be helpful when reading hard books. Paraphrasing is when you restate a portion of text in your own words. Summarizing is when you distill a portion of text into the main idea. Here’s how to summarize.
To paraphrase: When reading a hard book, it can be helpful to pause after a particularly challenging section, maybe a few sentences or so, and try to put the text into your own words. If you can’t do this, it means you don’t understand the original text. (At which point, you would use other comprehension strategies.)
Original text from William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying”: “Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way.”
Paraphrase: Sometimes I believe nobody is totally crazy or totally sane, but instead, we are just labeled one way or another by other people.
To summarize: Depending on the difficulty level of the book (yes it’s hard, but how hard?), you could pause every few pages or every chapter to write a short summary. How short is short? About two sentences. If you struggle to summarize the chapter, it likely means you didn’t fully extract the main idea. This is valuable feedback.
4. Check your comprehension as you read.
We’ve all read a full page of text, only to realize that we had no idea what the heck we were reading. This is normal, and it’s more likely to happen when reading hard books. The goal, therefore, becomes not to stop yourself from zoning out, but to notice when it happens.
When you notice that you’re not sure what you’re reading, or you realize that you’ve read a few sentences and they make no sense to you, you need to stop reading and try something new. Don’t keep reading, assuming that your comprehension will immediately return. It will not.
To check your comprehension as you read, you should periodically ask yourself some version of the following questions:
- Does this make sense?
- Can I summarize what’s happening?
- Could I explain this to someone else in a way that they would understand?
- Where exactly does my comprehension start falling apart?
Also, if you’re using strategy #3 above, you’re checking your comprehension by default because writing a summary of a chunk of text requires total understanding.
5. Know when to be okay with the gist.
Sometimes hard books are really … hard. And no matter how much you try, you find yourself struggling to understand a certain passage or a whole section. Now, sometimes you really do need to slow down, dig in, and figure it out – especially if you’ll be writing an essay on the book, or using the information for a future assignment.
But also, sometimes simply just understanding the gist of a section is good enough. Sometimes you don’t need to understand every single sentence. In these cases, you can get by with just getting the gist – the general idea of what the author is saying. Sometimes this really is enough to get you through harder portions of hard books.
6. Annotate the text.
You’ve heard one before. You’ve probably been told to annotate text since you were in sixth grade. But how often do you really do it? And do you even know how?
I have many annotation tutorials, including this one that teaches my Highlight and Rewrite strategy, as well as this one that explains the top 6 annotation mistakes, and this one that teaches you the 11 most critical annotation strategies. You should check out each of those resources so that you can understand how to annotate. After you learn how, do it.
I can’t teach how to read hard books without suggesting you annotate as you read. Annotating text forces you to slow down, think about what you’re reading, and check your understanding (because you can’t annotate what you don’t understand – right?). I know that slowing down your reading can be… well, annoying … but that’s what it takes to get through hard books.
7. Be on the lookout for when things really fall apart.
In a perfect world, you’d notice the moment something doesn’t make sense while you’re reading. However, what’s more likely to happen is that you don’t realize that you missed something; in other words, sometimes you won’t even know when your comprehension is off until you get really confused down the road.
The strategy here is that you should be on the lookout for when your comprehension really starts to fall apart. And when it does, stop reading and fix your comprehension (how? I explain in the next paragraph). For example, let’s say you’re reading a hard book, but you think you’re doing okay with understanding what’s going on. But then you come across a passage that fully contradicts what you thought was happening. You think Wait, what? That’s her mom!? Or you think Hey, I thought he was dead … how is he alive right now? Whenever you read something that doesn’t support what you THOUGHT was happening in the book, it’s a sign that you need to go back and fix your comprehension. Let’s talk about how.
Here are some ways to clarify your comprehension of a hard book that you thought you were doing okay with:
- Google the specific question or issue you’re struggling to understand. For example, if you’re reading William Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying,” and you have no idea what one of the characters is saying, Google that particular scene in that particular chapter.
- Go back a few pages and reread. Yes, I know this suggestion is obnoxious because you just want to finish the book already, but sometimes it’s just what you have to do.
- After you read each chapter, read a SparkNotes or Lit Charts summary of the chapter. Reading a summary after you attempt to read a chapter yourself helps you fill in the gaps in your understanding.
Conclusion about how to read hard books
Reading hard books is always going to be hard … because hard books are just hard. I’m not being sarcastic; I’m being real. As I said in the introduction, what makes a book hard depends on your reading level, the topic, the language, and the author’s writing style. While you can eventually become a better reader by reading more, some content will always be challenging to get through. The key is recognizing when a book is difficult, and adjusting your reading strategies to maximize your comprehension.