How to Read a Difficult Book.
Thucydides is next on my reading list, and I'm highly motivated to read his book 'The Peloponnesian War'.
The problem is, it's a long and complex story. I read the two legendary passages in a previous pass - the Melian Dialog and the Funeral Oration of Pericles. Then I tried to read it through and got stuck. I need help.
So what I've done is great guidance for reading any difficult book.
Start by doing one of these two things first. Either:
- Read through the introduction and notes briefly looking for single words or phrases that praise the book, seeking to just appreciate the text and get a bit of positive emotion flowing. (For example, the intro to Thucydides calls his prose "muscular" - which I find interesting!)
- Simply count the number of pages of the actual text only. Don't count the opening pages, notes, and outside matter. For example, the introduction to Thucydides is 30 pages long. The text, minus the notes, ends at 600 pages. So the text to read it 570 pages long.
Either get an objective measure of how much you must read to complete the book, or generate a subjective sense of how much you could potentially enjoy the book. Simple!
After you've done that, then you can extend both the subjective and objective approach further.
I'll start with objective.
Thucydides' book is 570 pages long. He divided it up into eight books. How many pages per book roughly? Well, eight times seven is 56, therefore each of the eight books of Thucydides is on average seventy pages long. That's the size of a medium sized novella.
Now for the subjective:
If we examine how the writer organized the book itself into eight books, the book seems to suggest is that we read Thucydides not like a 570 page history, but like eight novellas about the same topic. Immediately I can feel relieved knowing I can read an eighth of the book and put it aside for a week to do something else. I don't have to hold the whole thing in mind. Instead of one huge book, Thucydides is now eight short books.
So, if the 'Peloponnesian War' is really 8 books in one, what are they about? How do they relate together?
There are three ports of call to answer this question: the table of contents, the opening paragraph of each book, and the closing paragraph of each book. Reading all of those will let me find nice dramatic interesting titles for each book. And notice it's a fun way to get subjectively engaged with the book, once again?
From a glance at book one, I wrote "Fear Brings War." That's my personal title for book one of Thucycides - the way I think about and feel about that text. This creates a sense of engagement and ownership of the meaning of the text. It's my book, not just any old book.
Book two - Noble Athens under pressure.
Book three - Civil war in Cocyra.
Book four - Athens kicks ass.
Book five - Athens violates integrity.
Book six - Athens versus Sicily, and the treachery of Alcidiades.
Book seven - War at sea.
Book eight - The end of democracy in Greece.
Now, many of these will be inaccurate or irrelevant; the point is not truth but stimulating interest and passion to read. The point is to engage with the text. At this stage of reading I just want a hook to get and keep me interested.
I will be dipping into the first book now looking for what interests me most. In a sense I will be creating the text in myself rather than passively allowing it to pour into me like historical sludge.
In conclusion, a hard book is not a hard book unless you read it in a hard way. If you read a hard book like you would read Harry Potter, by starting at the start and just pushing through, then you'll probably lose your way at the first difficult passage.
1 - engage with the text in nonlinear ways
2 - move between gathering information on the structure of the book and appreciating the qualities of the book
3 - find words and ideas that get you excited and motivated to read on.
If you do this, you'll certainly enjoy the best books more and more, no matter how difficult they are to others.