How I Read Classics

21 February 2020

I have always been someone who has been for some reason drawn to classics. I used to love to read abridged versions of Call of the Wild, The Swiss Family Robinson, and Arabian Nights (the Classic Starts series was my jam!). I would also peruse the library as a 10-year-old and pick up the biggest classics I could find, Don Quixote, Mansfield ParkLittle Women. While I would rarely ever be able to finish these before they were due back,  I had such a strong desire to read all the classic stories I knew were so famous. I wanted to know the references and appreciate the words that had shaped the history of literature.

I never felt any sort of intimidation about reading classics. With the right amount of time, I somehow had the confidence that I could read whatever I set my mind to. I loved the challenge of reading through the dense writing and complex vocabulary of Victorian classics. As someone who loves history, reading these books made me feel like I was connecting with people who lived in a time completely different than mine.

That excitement I get around classics hasn't gone away, but has grown as I have. But even though I personally love classics, I know there are those who don't care for them from bad experiences, or those who want to read them, but find them to be incredibly intimidating to read through. That's why today I wanted to share some of the ways I've learned how to make reading classics easier and more enjoyable. I believe that anyone has the capabilities to tear through a classic and appreciate why it has become timeless.

1. W A T C H  T H E  M O V I E  F I R S T

Yes, you read that right! If you want to get better at reading and comprehending classics, it is so helpful to watch the movie/TV adaptation of the story first. I would have never picked up Wuthering Heights if I had not watched the 2009 miniseries with Tom Hardy as Heathcliff. Because I loved the series and the story so much I was motivated to pick up the book, since we all know the book is always better. If there's a movie of a classic you enjoy, the chances are you'll love the book. And besides the enjoyment, watching the movie prepares you for what to expect from the story. It's easier to keep track of characters and what's happening in the plot when you have a vague image in your head to visualize from the movie. In my opinion, classics are the exception to the rule of always reading the book before watching the adaptation.

2. U S E  S P A R K N O T E S

Sparknotes are a great resource for people who struggle through classics! I don't know why more people don't rave about them. I know some use them as a way to "read" a book without really reading it, so they can be disregarded as cheating. I believe, however, that Sparknotes were created to be used in tandem with the actual source material. I read Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens with Sparknotes because I was having trouble keeping track of all the characters relationships with each other. After every chapter, I would read the summary of that chapter alone to make sure my comprehension was correct. As I got further along in the story, I got used to it and was able to stop reading the summaries and follow what was happening easily. If you have trouble getting started with classics, Sparknotes are an easy way to jump start your way through. They also have quizzes to test your understanding of the material, which I always think are fun (but maybe I'm just a nerd...).

3. R E A D  S L O W L Y

I give this advice to every reader, regardless of what they're trying to read. But I think it's especially applicable for people trying to read classics. Read at your own pace!! Take whatever amount of time you need to get the most out of your reading experience. I spent six months reading Les Misérables, and while it wasdiscouraging at times, I think it was the best way to read it. Since I took my time, I think I got so much more out of it than I would have if I had tried to speed read it. Read what you can, make sure you understand it, and take breaks when you need to. You'll be able to love reading classics more if you don't put pressure on yourself.

4. L I S T E N  T O  T H E  A U D I O B O O K  W H I L E  Y O U  R E A D

This is another great trick to help your comprehension. Listening to an audiobook while you're physically reading along is such an incredible immersive experience. I highly recommend it if you've never tried it! Sometimes this immersion is what you need to really get into the mindset of reading a classic. Hearing the inflections of the narrator's voice also helps you better decipher the dense language and what's happening in the plot. I recently read Murder on the Orient Express and A Tale of Two Cities this way and it was a wonderful experience both times! I felt like I could focus much better when I had the story being told in different formats at the same time.

5. P I C K  B O O K S  Y O U ' R E  I N T E R E S T E D  I N

Classics don't always have to be for school. You don't have to feel like it's an assignment of life to read through all the big name classics that have been written. There are so many classics from so many different eras and cultures about so many different subjects. There's always a classic out there for everyone, and you shouldn't waste time reading books you think will be boring like Uncle Tom's Cabin and Moby Dick just because you feel like you have to. The Classics Club is a great resource to find books you might not have known are considered classics. Ultimately, whether you're reading a classic or not, I think reading what you're actually interested in is the most important thing!

I know I can't make everyone in the world love classics as much as I do. But I hope with these tips and tricks, you can begin to see that these books don't have to be intimidating and are not impossible to read.


  1. For Jane Austen we saw most of the movies first. For North and South, I wanted to watch the miniseries, so I made myself read the book first. I think I've used wikipedia to look up summaries, probably should stop that and use sparknotes instead.

    Right now I'm planning on trying to use Serial Reader (an app that sends a portion of a book to you a day) to read War and Peace. I was getting a bit overwhelmed trying to right everyone down. I found a spoiler free list of characters, the spoiler free part is important when searching!

    If I made myself watch the Wuthering Heights miniseries before reading the book, that book would never have been read, wow that miniseries is dark. I tried watcing it many years ago, but I could only bear it for a few minutes at a time and gave it up.

    1. I have heard a lot about Serial Reader and have been thinking about trying it out.
      Yeah you definitely have to be wary of spoilers when you're trying to brush up on a story or characters.
      I definitely understand how Wuthering Heights is not for everyone, but I personally loved it!

      I love hearing your thoughts, Livia!

  2. This post was SO helpful, Hannah! I'm always intimidated by classics and honestly prefer novels like contemporaries, but your tips motivated me to try classics. I haven't heard of Sparknotes before, but they seem like a great resource to help you read classics. Amazing post! <333

    1. I'm so glad you found this post helpful! I hope you're able to pick up some classics soon!

  3. This post is great for people who struggle in the classic realm! I love classics and my go-to is watching the movie first if possible. I agree on that being #1!
    It has helped me SO SO much in the past. <3

    1. It really is so helpful! There are so many classics I would've been too scared to pick up if I hadn't seen the movie first.

  4. This is great! I love these tips so much. Classics do, admittedly, tend to intimidate me, but once I get into one I almost always end up loving it!! I definitely advocate reading slowly, which is how I read Les Miserables and enjoyed it SO MUCH (one of my favorite books of all time right there), and I'll have to try listening to an audiobook while physically reading because I've never done that.

    1. I'm glad you found these tips helpful! Les Mis is incredible! I love it so much!
      Thanks for commenting, Lila!

  5. This post is so helpful!! I read a lot of classics in high school, and enjoyed them, but haven't found the motivation to read more on my own. It's so hard to motivate myself to do something that is difficult to read, lol! I'm definitely going to have try and snag an audio book of a classic to listen to on my way to class!


    1. It can be hard to motivate yourself! But I hope you can find some good ones on audio!