Two Very Basic Tips For Reading A “Difficult” Book

Well, I thought that I’d talk briefly about “difficult” books today. This is mostly because I recently read William Gibson’s 1993 novel “Virtual Light” and it took me a while to get used to his (awesome, but something of an acquired taste) writing style again.

This reminded me of my very first attempt at reading Gibson’s 1984 sci-fi classic “Neuromancer” when I was about seventeen. Back then, I just couldn’t get into the book and abandoned it after one chapter. Two or three years later, I read the whole novel and was astonished by it. So, yes, sometimes books can seem “too difficult” to read. But, luckily, there are ways around this.

1) Let it wash over you: One of the simplest ways to handle a book that is written in an experimental, archaic or unusual style is simply to keep reading even if you don’t understand literally everything. Just let the words wash over you and don’t try to make too much sense of it. Not only does this help you to get used to the writer’s style but, after a while, you’ll probably find that some parts of the story will begin to make sense too.

Yes, this doesn’t work with literally every story. But, if the novel has an interesting idea behind it or if individual sentences are interesting enough that you actually want to read more of it, then this is the way to deal with it. Just let the words wash over you, don’t expect to understand literally everything and, gradually, at least some parts of the story will begin to make sense to you.

The best thing about taking this slightly “open” approach to reading is that it makes you better at dealing with these types of things in other books.

For example, between my abandoned first attempt at reading “Neuromancer” and my successful attempt at reading it a couple of years later, I read a few 1950s-60s “beat literature” novels (which sometimes include almost-incomprehensible plots and/or experimental writing techniques). So, when I returned to “Neuromancer”, I felt a bit more confident.

2) Practice reading widely: First of all, if you can’t get into a “difficult” book, then there’s no shame in putting it aside and returning to it at some later point. One of the best ways to deal with a “difficult” book is simply to get more practice at reading before you read it. But, remember to read books by lots of different authors and to take chances on authors you haven’t heard of and/or haven’t read before.

This is important for several reasons. Firstly, it gets you used to reading lots of different writing styles, which means that adapting to the style of a “difficult” book is a bit easier. Secondly, and most importantly, it means that you might encounter milder versions of the writing style you’re having trouble with – which means that you’ll have a better chance of understanding the “difficult” book when you return to it.

For example, reading 19th century-style narration became a lot easier after I read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories at the age of seventeen. Since these stories are short, really compelling and have clearly defined plots, they are a fun way of acclimatising to (and appreciating) these older writing styles. And, it also has the side-effect of making other 19th century novels (and modern 19th century style ones) more readable/understandable afterwards.

Likewise, when I read Gibson’s “Virtual Light” recently, it was a lot easier than the time I managed to read “Neuromancer” for the simple reason that I’d read a lot more books in the meantime. I could see how Gibson’s style was similar to “hardboiled” 1930s-50s American detective fiction, how it took influence from thriller fiction, how it was similar to other cyberpunk authors etc…..

So, practice reading widely and you’ll find that “difficult” books become a bit less difficult to read.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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