How Do I Read Classic Novels?

A classic novel is reflective of the time is was written. That may mean unusual language, words that have changed meaning, societal rules that don't apply to today's reader, historical context and anachronisms you may not know. Never fear, the library is here to help!

  • Take some time to read about the author, their works and their life when you search for an author or a novel in  an Arts & Literature database, opens a new window.
  • Use Novelist, opens a new window to learn more about an author's writing style, tone and what kind of characters they are known for writing (plus read-alikes!).
  • If you love history, spend some time researching the time period your chosen novel is set in. It might help you to get some context around social issues, customs and world events. New historicism literary theory posits that history is understood through literature, and literature is understood best when you understand the time period, because books aren't written in a vacuum. 
  • Look for annotated versions of classics. These can offer insights into the plot, time period, anachronisms and more. 


Classics can be daunting. Long. Complex. Wordy. And sometimes, downright unwieldy. But you can read the classics. If you find yourself struggling to keep going or losing motivation, try some of the following tips. 

  • Set a goal. A small goal, one that you can achieve. Maybe read one classic in the summer (long days) and winter (long nights). Maybe commit to listening to classic novels in audiobook form on your way to work or while you do chores. 
  • Don't start off with a massive classic. Ease your way into reading. Perhaps you want to start with a shorter classic like The Old Man and the Sea or Breakfast at Tiffany's to get your feet wet. Save those thick tomes like Moby-Dick, opens a new window or War and Peace, opens a new window for later.
  • Ask a librarian, opens a new window or your friends for recommendations on their favorite classics. 
  • Keep your phone, computer or dictionary nearby to look up new words or phrases you find unfamiliar. Language is always evolving; what you think a word might mean today may have had another meaning two hundred years ago.
  • If you find the language or plot frustrating, take a break.
  • Read a short summary of the chapter you're reading for context (and how far ahead you read is up to you!)
  • If you don't mind spoilers, watch a film or miniseries adaptation for context. Or use that as a reward once you finished the book.
  • Listen to an audiobook; a great narrator will take the guesswork out of language, allowing you to sit back and enjoy the story.
  • Find your reading space. If you choose a quiet, comfortable space that you always associate with reading, you'll want to go to that space to read. 
  • Set aside time to read. If you read for fifteen minutes a day, that adds up to 90 reading hours a year. If you read twenty pages a day, that's a 300 page book in 15 days. Sounds doable, doesn't it?
  • And finally, it's okay to put it down for something else. There are always more classics for you to discover and read.