5 Tips on How to Read Big Books at University

These novels sit proudly on bookcases all around the world

George Elliot’s Middlemarch (904 pages), Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (635 pages), Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1,225 pages), Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (904 pages) and, the big daddy of all of them, James Joyce’s winding stream-of-consciousness modernist epic Ulysses (1000 pages). The question is, how do you actually read big books?

They make their owners look very clever and intellectual, but very few people have actually read them all the way through. When you decided on your English major, you probably underestimated how much reading would come with it. So how are you going to do it in time for your seminar?

1. Do your research

If you’re going to get the most out of your book, you are going to need all the help you can get. The more you know about the book before you start reading, the more sense it will make along the way. Try to find out:

  • Who is the author?
  • What was happening in their life when they wrote it?
  • What was happening in the wider society?
  • How long did it take them to write?
  • What had they written previously and how had it been received?
  • How was the book originally published? Was it serialised?

Also, find out if anyone you know has read it before. That person can become your expert to guide you through the huge world you are about to enter.

2. Divide it up

The bigger the book, the more daunting it will seem. But don’t sit in front of a 1,000-page novel panicking. Divide it up into manageable chunks. If you’re happy to fold down corners of pages, fold the bottom right corner of every 100th page. Then you can use the top right corner to track your progress. That way, you’ll be able to feel your way to the next milestone as you go.

Ulysses looks intimidating, but it’s already divided into 18 shorter episodes. If you attempt one of those a day for 18 days, the whole task suddenly seems less daunting. You can even draw up a reading schedule. Set out how much you want to get done in each sitting and if you manage to fall behind on a day, don’t worry. Fix the schedule and keep ongoing.

3. Find out where you read well

You’re going to have to be comfortable to read big books for your English course. Find a space that suits you and take advantage of it. You could even rearrange some furniture and build yourself a reading nook with cushions and a lamp and somewhere to put a cup of tea.

It’s important that you have as few distractions as possible. Turn off your phone. Ignore the outside world. There’s only you and this great work of literature. Give it your full attention.

4. Take breaks

There’s no point tiring yourself out attempting marathon reading sessions fuelled by constant cups of coffee, leaving your eyes tired and your brain frazzled. You’ve got to take some of it in.

Give yourself regular breaks. You could do some housework or get out of the house and see people. You might find that breaking up a particularly challenging section with a trip to the gym or a bike ride gives your brain the chance to process what you’ve read. Chances are, you’ll come back to it refreshed and ready to engage with it better.

5. Actually read it!

So, we’re stating the obvious here, but it’s true. If you’re going learn how to read big books, you’ve got to actually sit down and read them. The longer you spend tip-toeing around the task and making excuses, the less time you leave yourself to actually read it. With a big task like this, there are no shortcuts. It’s not enough to just watch the BBC dramatisation of Middlemarch – your tutor will definitely know.

The only way you will read a big book is by sitting down and reading it.

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