Generally, for adults, I’m an advocate of reading what you enjoy and putting aside books that aren’t “doing it” for you in one way or another. But there are exceptions and, for the last few years my life has been full of them: book club selections (even my own) that fail to interest me, books my supervisors recommend, gifts or recommendations from family or close friends, books I need to teach. I find that often, despite my initial reluctance, I end up enjoying these books more than I would have initially expected. Indeed some of my favorites are books I may well have set aside if there wasn’t some outside pressure to push on. So if you have something on the “must read” list here are some suggestions of how you might get through it:
- Download the audiobook and squeeze it in to your commute, your exercise time or while you’re doing the housework. I used this recently to re-read something my bookclub had selected that I’d read a few years back and it gave me a new level of appreciation for the book and let me experience it in a slightly different way than I had the first time around.
- Read it very quickly – at least to start with. This is a trick I learnt at university when tackling the more difficult sections of ‘The Sound and the Fury.’ For a first time reader Benjy’s section can seem impenetrable and the harder you try to sort it all out the more frustrating it is. And then a professor recommended reading it quickly and without worrying too much about the meaning line by line. Suddenly the meaning started to become clear and once it did I found I could slow down and still be able to follow. You can always go back and re-read it so, if you’re struggling try reading it very fast to see if that helps.
- Read in patches and skim in between. I find this works well for books others have recommended but that don’t immediately appeal to me. I skim, looking for sections of particular interest or relevance; I read these more closely and then continue. I will confess that this is not usually a very enjoyable way to read – or at least not for fiction – and I find it does not (unlike some of the other techniques I mention here) help me come to a good appreciation of the merits of the book. Very often, if I’ve done this, I seem to remain mystified as to why others speak so highly of it. I don’t know if this is just because tastes differ, or if it’s because this technique really doesn’t give a genuinely good book a chance to reveal itself to me. I save this method for things I am really not enjoying but must give at least a cursory reading. It allows you to have a semi-intelligent conversation about it with someone (perhaps the person who recommended it) down the line.
- Start again. Sometimes if I’m 30 pages into a book I’m not enjoying, the best thing to do is turn back and start again. Usually on a second reading I find it easier to get on the book’s on-ramp and pick up momentum. Not all books are initially appealing, not all open up in the same way with a first reading and by the time I’m at page 30 (or 50 or 100) hopefully I’ve learnt a little bit about what the book is doing, which helps me to approach it with more appropriate expectations the second time around. If you need to give a book a good read for whatever reason, I recommend this technique for getting a lot more out of the book than perhaps you might if you try the next method on my list.
- Give yourself a daily page goal and push through. This is a tip from one of my thesis supervisors and I do not enjoy doing it but it will get you to the end of the book. Read perhaps 25 pages a day. When you reach your daily target you can stop (though if you’re lucky enough to be in a section you’re enjoying you might consider pushing on).
- Read a review or listen to a podcast about the book. Maybe you’re missing something. Maybe the reviewer might offer you a way into the book you hadn’t seen. Is the author doing something particular with the language you hadn’t noticed? Be careful to avoid spoilers if these will slow you down further (podcasts are more likely to spoil books than newspaper reviews but usually they will warn you up front if they are the type of format that reveals spoilers). That said, the promise of an interesting plot point further down the line might be what you need to to be able pull yourself through a book you’re not enjoying.
- If you have time: put it away for a while. Maybe the time is wrong. If you don’t have to read it this month, you might enjoy it more in 6 months time. Books don’t go off. Often they get better with a bit of waiting.
Usually, when I’m able to push through a book I’m not enjoying I find it pays off in one way or another. Many people have the experience that a book they initially resisted, or that they had to put away for a few years, turns out to be one of their favourites so stay positive and read on. You might be pleasantly surprised.