Six Steps to Conquering Classic Literature

Do Shakespeare’s sonnets give you the shivers? Does Austen make you anxious? If classic literature sends you careening into crisis and poetry leaves you positively petrified, fret not! You’re not alone.

Today, classic literature has something of a bad reputation. And, in many ways, it has earned it. For modern readers, reading classic titles might feel like a chore. Sometimes, these titles seem inaccessible, as if their meaning is obscured by unfamiliar language, dated values, and missing context.

Grappling with these texts can be frustrating and discouraging, which leads us to the first step to becoming comfortable with classic texts:


1. Don’t be afraid to be confused. 

We get it: it’s hard to power through confusion. It doesn’t feel great when a book makes you feel dumb—we’ve all been there before! Every reader has to start somewhere. 

Never beat yourself up for not knowing something. Instead, reframe your perspective: be proud of yourself for trying, and get excited about all the new things you’ll learn.

This first step is the hardest because it requires you to quiet your anxiety and stifle your insecurities. However, this step is also the most rewarding because it allows you to approach classic literature for what it is: a tool to help you learn and grow, not a pop quiz or a puzzle.


2. Research, research, research.

Before you turn to page one, do some digging. Researching the author—and the time and place they were writing about—can help you situate yourself during tricky passages. 

For example, you might feel less confused about why Animal Farm is considered a classic after discovering that the farm isn’t just any old farm but is instead an allegory for communism in twentieth-century Russia. Similarly, The Great Gatsby might make more sense if you know that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a member of the Lost Generation.

These snippets of the author’s experience, perspective, and historical context might help you make the connections you might not have otherwise. Plus, having these fun facts in your back pocket might make you feel more confident about the parts of the book you still don’t understand!


3. Just pick the book up.

This step is infuriatingly self-explanatory. While it’s not hard to just… pick a book up, we know how maddeningly difficult it can be to convince yourself to do so. Remind yourself that unfamiliar scenarios are a learning opportunity, take a deep breath, then leap onto the well-swabbed deck of Melville’s Pequod or step cautiously through the looming gates of Castle Dracula


4. Remember: there is no right answer.

The best part of reading is the conversation that blooms between the reader and the author. There is no perfect way to read a classic text. There is no defining interpretation, no singular, exact answer. Instead, every reader brings their unique, individual lens to the table.

Literature, at its most distilled essence, is an attempt to communicate life’s most fleeting moments through the lens of the author’s experience. Your goal as a reader is not to strangle some perfect, obscure meaning from the author’s efforts but to discover what aspects and insights are meaningful to you.

Enjoy the process! Consider the things that confuse you, read with intention, and think deeply and critically. Even if your interpretation of the work isn’t quite perfect, it is still valuable!


5. Watch the movie

While this step might sound strange coming from us book nerds, it helps. Think about it: we frequently read Shakespeare, which ignores the fact that his works were literally made for the stage! 

If you find yourself feeling stuck while reading Death of a Salesman or are just curious to see who was cast to play Ned Weeks in the most recent performance of The Normal Heart, take a second to find a recording online. 

Watching an adaptation of a classic work can help visual learners engage with it more deeply. Visual aids remind us that there are many ways to interpret a character, scene, line of dialogue, or even an entire work. Just be careful to separate the text from its adaptation—movies can be a great tool, but they are no replacement for the book itself!


6. And, finally, check out our study guides! 

There is simply not enough time in the world to learn every literary device, read every myth, or understand every allusion. Utilize the resources available to you, and remember that there is no shame in asking for help. 

Check out our How To Series, review our guide to Literary Terms, peruse our 30,000+ Study Guides, or snag an Instant Answer to any question, at any time. Don’t worry—we got you!