How to read difficult books

by on June 16, 2004 at 1:58 am in Books | Permalink

Yes, today is the hundredth anniversary of “Bloomsday,” June 16, 1904, the day on which the adventures of Leopold Bloom (Ulysses) start. The book, long a favorite of mine, is not nearly as difficult as it is sometimes thought to be.

Here are a few tips for reading otherwise difficult works of fiction:

1. Try reading the last chapter first. Don’t obsess over the sequential.

2. Read through the first time, following each voice or character, skipping passages as you need to. Then reread the book as a whole in order. This works especially well for Faulkner.

3. Try reading the first fifty pages three times in a row before proceeding.

4. Don’t be afraid to skip over material and return to it later. This is necessary for the first fifty pages of Nostromo.

5. Read through without stopping, and then try the book again, but with some idea of where things are headed.

6. Read some of the secondary literature first. I don’t like CliffNotes, but in general don’t be afraid to go low when looking for help.

7. Read the book out loud to yourself or to others.

8. Simply give up.

I’ve found that some combination of these tricks almost always works.

By the way, here are some recent writings on Ulysses and the centenary.

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