How to Read Long and Difficult Books

I am not a well-read person. My interest in books typically ends once I finish the first few chapters–but this is because the concentration needed to read long and complex texts often bores me. Here are some pointers on how to read more challenging books with less frustration, so you can enjoy them at least for a little while longer.:

The “how to read difficult books reddit” is a subreddit that has been created for those who want to learn how to read long and difficult books.

I’ve finished a lot of long, often difficult-to-read novels in the past year. The 900-page tome about George Washington by Ron Chernow. On James Madison, there are almost 600 thick pages. Andrew Roberts’ enormous Winston Churchill biography. (Yes, I’m a sucker for biographies.) A handful of Dickens’ works are rather large. Moby-Dick, Melville’s American classic. The iconic, epic series on Lyndon B. Johnson by Robert Caro. Most recently, I finished reading all 1,400+ pages of Les Miserables. 

Even while I like these volumes and had a real interest in the subject matter, they were frequently difficult to read, if only because of their sheer bulk. Pages are large, typefaces are small, and margins are small. Since of its weight, Les Mis had to be read sitting up, and frequently on a chair with an armrest, because it was so damned heavy and awkward. (While I could have read an e-version, as I’ll explain below, I prefer hardbound editions of classics, despite the fact that they’re more difficult to manage.) 

While reading Hugo and Dickens is a joy, the fact is that their language is so different from today’s that it requires a lot of cognitive capacity to really comprehend them. While the bios I cited aren’t necessarily ancient, they are loaded with information, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with the person or era. They’re just daunting to those who aren’t accustomed to the sort of reading that needs continuous concentration and a little of stamina. 

Prior to the previous year or two, I would have put myself in that category. After a few hundred pages, I gave up trying to read Washington: A Life. I’d attempted Moby-Dick before and had a similar experience. The appeal of a huge, meaty book was strong, but I couldn’t get the energy to complete many of them. 

So, what was it that eventually pushed me over the edge and enabled me to finish these massive books? (And then, of course, to keep going!) I didn’t understand why at the moment. I thought it was a mix of establishing a strategy and eventually mustering the courage to keep turning the pages. But, after giving it some thought, I found there was an intrinsic strategy to how I was doing it. There’s no need to be frightened by ancient books, lengthy books, or novels that are just difficult to read. In our Smartphone Age, it is a talent that must be taught. 

Here’s how I did it (and still do) and how you can, too: 

1. Create a strategy for yourself. 

Part of my success in reading at least a few of these books was undoubtedly due to the fact that I had begun on a couple of different reading initiatives. One was to read every US president’s biography, while the other was to read all of Dickens’ works. (Both have indeterminate dates so I can read other stuff in between.) It was a lot simpler to get through Chernow’s Washington and Dickens’ first work, The Pickwick Papers, which is a large and loosely linked set of vignettes. 


Do you have a specific area of interest that you’d want to learn more about? Is there a particular list that has sparked your curiosity, such as AoM’s “100 Books Every Man Should Read”? Do you have a favorite author whose work you want to read in its entirety? Make a reading schedule for yourself. 

2. Make a daily reading goal of a certain amount of time or pages.

Giving oneself a micro-goal is one of the keys to accomplishing that strategy. My aim of reading 44+ presidential bios (some of which are multi-volume) provides me with some direction, but it’s too far away to keep me motivated on a daily basis. Even concentrating on merely completing the next book in the series may be difficult, especially when that book is large – presidents’ lives are often carefully researched and chronicled. 

As a result, I set myself even more modest reading targets. I usually start by flipping through the book to get a feel of how lengthy the chapters are; with Washington: A Life, I set out to read one chapter every day. This was quite achievable, considering each chapter was just 10-20 pages long. I’ll set a time limit for books with lengthier chapters (like Caro’s LBJ trilogy), which is generally 30 minutes each day. 

Because I work from home and don’t have to travel or deal with interruptions during my lunch hour, I may have more time to read than others. Give it simply 10-15 minutes every day if you’re severely constricted. You’ll finish those lengthy and difficult books more faster than you think, and if time and energy permit, you’ll frequently happily accomplish more than you planned. 

3. Interact/engage with the text. 

Making myself interact with the text is one of the things that keeps me interested, particularly while reading a lengthy and/or tough book. I nearly always read with a pencil/notebook in hand, highlighting intriguing morsels and jotting down one-sentence summaries of each chapter or section. When he highlighted the concentric rings of anti-slavery sentiments in the North in James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, a famous chronicle of the Civil War, I physically made a picture in my notepad. Underline and take notes in the same manner if you’re reading an e-version. It’s a touch more difficult (mostly because of the notes), but it’s still enjoyable. 

4. Choose an edition that appeals to you. 

This may have a significant impact on your reading experience. Reading may be a lot more active than you would realize. The weight of the book, the typeface and text design, even the cover art – if a book is appealing to the eye and comfortable to carry, you’re more inclined to pick it up. 

I prefer paper versions for most of my reading, especially hardcovers, since they are tangible and tactile, and they are free of the distractions built into my phone. Paperbacks are more portable, but the text is frequently darker, with smaller letter sizes and narrower margins, making it more difficult to read. And, although I appreciate secondhand bookshops just as much as the next person, I don’t like reading books that have already been marked up with notes or underlining. It’s very obtrusive. As a result, I always make certain to get a clean copy. 


When it comes to classic literature, there are typically a plethora of options. Older editions are occasionally interesting to have, but they’re sometimes difficult to see due to narrow margins and dark font. I particularly like the inclusion of informative endnotes and extensive introductions, which are nearly invariably absent in prior editions. In my perspective, Penguin Classics is the gold standard. On my bookshelf, I have a couple handfuls of those black paperback covers gazing at me. If I’m in the mood for a hardback for some reason, I also like the Everyman’s Library versions. 

Despite the above, I’m gradually returning to reading on my Kindle. When it’s not a volume I’m collecting, or when I don’t want to take up shelf space, or when there’s a Kindle bargain that’s too good to pass up, I’ll go for an ebook. Reading on a sofa or in bed with a lightweight Kindle is undoubtedly the most comfortable way to read. I can read a heavy biography with one hand while chasing toddlers around the house if necessary. Plus, it’s free of the brightness and distractions that come with a smartphone or tablet. Another advantage of reading on a Kindle is that you can get free classic novels! Anything written before 1923 is available for free and may be downloaded in seconds. 

Finally, figure out what you like. Find the book version that you love reading the most, whether it’s a cheap old paperback, a new hardback, or the convenience of a Kindle edition. 

5. Keep a dictionary or encyclopedia close at hand.

Part of the issue with lengthy and difficult books is that they may make us feel stupid if we don’t know specific terminology or lack the contextual information that would make it simpler to grasp. When I first began reading about the Civil War, I bought an atlas of Civil War battles and movements. I kept my phone beside me while reading Les Mis to seek up French phrases, antique and out-of-use terminology, and details about the Battle of Waterloo (a section of text which nearly killed me). 

You’ll probably want to have your phone nearby as well; although you could buy a hardbound dictionary, you’ll often need to access many resources to research different references (historical, cultural, etc.). Of course, looking things up on your phone might urge you to explore other applications, but simply ignore the Instagram itch. If that’s too tough, use this guide to ban distracting applications during your reading time.

6. Simply get through the difficult bits. 

Every lengthy and/or tough book has a section that disengages you and makes it difficult to take up again. My advice to you is to simply get through it, even if you have to skim or (heaven forbid!) skip parts. I missed a portion on Churchill’s experience in the Boer War in the aforementioned Churchill book since I had previously read Candice Millard’s enthralling account of the same time period (and listened to her interview with Brett). 


Don’t worry about missing anything if you don’t already know it. You’re likely to miss stuff the first time you read a book, particularly if it’s a lengthy or tough one. If it’s a book, you’ll be able to catch up to the storyline fast enough; if it’s non-fiction, you’ll be able to endure missing a few facts if they’re significant enough. It’s OK to scan over stuff, believe me. 

7. Use the momentum to your advantage! 

I believe that finishing Chernow’s Washington, a book I had previously given up on, is part of why I’ve been able to read so many large novels in the past year. It was great to turn the last page and close the back cover. I knew I’d be able to finish the next difficult book, whatever it was. (It was David McCullough’s John Adams; he’s a fantastic storyteller, but even he struggled to make Adams’ decade in Europe intriguing.) Nonetheless, I breezed through it.)  

The same might be said about Les Misérables. I was pretty pleased of what seemed like an accomplishment (maybe more than it should have!) after 1,432 pages and two months of reading every day. You’ll have momentum on your side if you finish one huge, difficult book. One “victory” is all it takes to boost your confidence in your reading ability. 

Moving ahead, I’m certain that I can read and complete almost everything you put in front of me. You can do the same with a little daily attention, conscious interaction with the content, and smart skimming and skipping if required. 

Sign up for my weekly email, “What to Read Next,” to keep up with what I’m reading, which includes a lot of hefty novels.



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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best way to read a difficult book?

A: There is no best way to read a difficult book. Some people like audio books, while others prefer e-books or paper copies of the same book.

How do you read a really long book?

A: I do not understand the question.

What is the most difficult book to read?

A: The most difficult book to read would be Moby Dick. It has a complex story and is challenging for readers of all ages.

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