If you’re following along with the Book Fifty 2017 Reading Challenge, chances are at least one of the categories on the list will push you a little outside of your literary comfort zone. And while I’ve written posts about reading difficult books, reading Shakespeare, and reading the classics, I’ve never written a post about fighting the strange intimidation that comes when you just think about or look at a certain book. You know that feeling? The strange bubbly panic that you feel in your throat when someone asks you if you’ve finished The Girl on the Train yet, or if you remember the name of that one character in A Tale of Two Cities?
For me this feeling happens a lot with Russian novels, satire, and stream-of-consciousness. (Also, randomly, with Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. I’ve picked it up at least twenty times to read it and I just. can’t. do. it.). So today I thought I’d break down why we feel intimidated by certain books and then offer my best suggestions for fixing those problems.
Now, the very nature of this post flies in the face of the current advice floating around the web that encourages adults to stop reading books they don’t enjoy. Why read a book that isn’t fun and entertaining?Well, I think that to truly be an engaged reader there has to be something more going on in your mind than “Do I like this book?” Reading for pleasure is important, but I also think we can find a lot of pleasure in intellectual growth. Sometimes the two happen at the same time, but sometimes you have to muscle through one hundred and fifty pages of Les Miserables before it starts to get good.
But I digress. Let’s get down to the real reasons behind our book-timidation. I’ve thought of three very simple reasons why we won’t pick up the book that’s been sitting on the nightstand for ages, and I’ve tried to give you some practical suggestions for getting past that phase and on to deciding whether or not an intimidating book is worth your time.
We’re afraid we won’t understand the book.
We’ve all been there. Probably in high school or college, with a teacher or professor asking us to read something so foreign and difficult that we froze. The great thing about being an adult reader is that if you don’t understand something in a book, it’s okay. There’s not going to be a test. You don’t have to parse every sentence and hunt for symbols, you can just read and let whatever you do understand sink in.
However, if the fear of not being able to comprehend a book is really bothering you, here are a few tips:
- Do some preliminary research. Find out what the author was going through when he or she wrote the book. Find out about the time period the book is set in.
- Do some on-the-fly research. As you read, keep your phone next to you and Google whatever words or phrases you don’t understand.
- Summarize each chapter as you go along. Remind yourself who the characters are, what they’re up to, and what they believe. Then if you get lost, flip back and look at what you’ve written–chances are you’ve understood more than you think.
We’re afraid we won’t enjoy the book.
This, I think, is where we get the idea that you should abandon books you don’t enjoy. Life’s too short. I think there is some wisdom in that. I’ve written about a list of books I didn’t finish for one reason or another. So how do you get around your fear of being bored by a book? I really only have one good suggestion:
- Give it an honest try. Read twenty-five percent of the book and see if anything about it catches your interest. If not, there’s absolutely no shame in abandoning it and moving on to the next thing. BUT if anything (and I mean anything) about that first twenty-five percent touches something in you emotionally or intellectually, it might be worth pushing through.
We’re afraid the book will take us outside of our comfort zone.
Books are meant to challenge us, they are meant to make us think about our beliefs and our ideas. So what do we do when we’re afraid a book will take us outside the realm of our normal thoughts?
- You don’t have to agree with something to learn from it. Right now I am listening to an audiobook called The Age of Genius about the seventeenth century, and the author is very decidedly against any type of organized religion. His arrogant tone and message make me want to stop reading, but I know that this book will stretch me to defend how I believe faith and intellect relate. Even though I don’t think I’ll really enjoy the book, I know I will learn from it and grow.
- You never know what new, exciting things are out there! There’s always a chance that when you pick up a book outside of your comfort zone it will be a dud, but there’s also a chance that you’ve discovered a new favorite.
So, what books intimidate you? What intimidating books are you reading right now? I’d love to hear in the comments below.