How to Read 18th and 19th Century Novels Without Going Insane or Giving Up

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This post is for the people who hated English class in school. Yes, I know who you are. You dreaded Jane Austen and Shakespeare. You think reading is boring, or you prefer graphic novels and comic books. If you’ve ever been to this blog, you’ve passed by with a shiver.

Because I discuss those books. The “smart people” books, as I’ve sometimes heard them called. I find that term insulting. They aren’t “smart people” books, they’re “anyone who wants to read them” books. Being smart has very little to do with it.

Disliking books from a particular period doesn’t make you stupid any more than liking them makes you smart. I’ve made this argument before, to many people over the years. Some have thought about it differently. Others stubbornly stuck to their “cannot do” attitude.

But if you’re one of those people who feels like they should be able to pick up, say, an Anthony Trollope, Sir Walter Scott, or James Fenimore Cooper novel and be able to enjoy it, I have compiled a few tips for you.

Tip# 1: Read out loud or get an audiobook.

I suggested this before when I went over epic poetry and it holds true for novels too. Reading wasn’t a private activity until more recently. So, it means most of the sentences that you think are too long are written that way because they were supposed to be spoken. This becomes even more true depending on where the novel originated.

I’m reading The Pioneers by James Fenimore Cooper, and it is definitely not an easy read at first. But then, I read an article from the James Fenimore Cooper Society about reading his novels and this is one of their recommendations too because it’s how people would have read his novels when they were first published. 

The United States in the 1820s was still largely rural and therefore more spread out. If you lived in a small place like Cooperstown, New York, you didn’t have a theater to go to in the evenings. Or a playhouse. You had whatever entertainment you could make at home. That entertainment was learning to play music, or, even more commonly, reading aloud.

Someone would have read aloud a chapter or two in the evenings while everyone listened. If you ever come across Who Murdered Chaucer? by the late, great Terry Jones, you’ll find the same information. Geoffrey Chaucer, of Canterbury Tales fame, was sometimes invited to house parties specifically to read his work.

Remember the oral tradition? Well, it was still in play, only instead of only telling stories from memory, people read them from books.

So, the next time you try to pick up a novel that isn’t from your usual time period, try reading it aloud. Or, if you’re still not able to get around the sentences—I don’t. blame you if that’s the case—get an audiobook of the novel in question.

I’ve done that myself for a few books. It’s a unique experience, but if you’re not very adept at reading aloud (like me) or don’t want to, it’s an excellent alternative.

Tip# 2: Learn how to visualize.

If you aren’t used to visualizing images, pictures, or scenery, this will take some practice, but it’s worthwhile. Most novels before the radio were highly descriptive. The Count of Monte Cristo was so descriptive, in fact, that it not only made Marseilles a popular tourist destination after its publication, but it made travel to Italy that much more popular too.

Having been to Rome and to the Spanish Steps where the Count first makes his appearance, I can attest to the accuracy myself. It’s almost uncanny.

But if you’re in the 21st century reading about life in the 19th, you will get a better appreciation for the writing if you learn how to visualize what the words are saying. There’s a lovely description in The Pioneers of a snow-covered landscape around Christmas time. It’s almost out of a Norman Rockwell picture or from an old movie. Now, I live in Florida. I’ve seen snow in person only twice in my entire life.

So, it’s pretty special when, Floridian that I am, I’m able to smell the pine woods, listen to the crunch of the snow, and feel the cold in my imagination.

With the array of visual media out there, it’s a harder skill to get used to using. We’re so used to pictures and videos, it’s harder to process pictures that are just described to us. But, it’s an important skill to have.

So, how do you develop the skills? Start small. Re-read my post on how to practice descriptive writing too. There are some excellent tips in there which will help. 

Tip# 3: Slow your pace and don’t be afraid of taking a long time to read one book.

Books today are fast-paced and almost written as if they were ready to be turned into a movie or mini-series. Novels from before the time of cinema, however, are quite different. You’re supposed to take them at a leisurely pace. So, don’t be afraid to slow down.

Or to break up a tough book with reading a few that are easier for you to read. There’s no shame in that. We’re wired differently than the people of two centuries past. Life differs from what it was and if you have to take a month, two months, or longer to finish a book, at least you stuck with it until the end.

If you don’t like it, find another book to read. It’s as simple as that.

Tip# 4: Take notes or annotate your reading.

If you’re dealing with a novelist like Charles Dickens, you will encounter more characters than you can keep track of. Try making a running list of the characters and who they are as you’re reading.

Or, use the little colored flags Post-It sells for annotating your books. This is a fun, colorful way to track characters, themes, new words, and plotlines as you are reading. It’s also helpful for identifying fantastic quotes you want to remember later on.

The other advantage? It will force you to slow down so you can absorb what you’re reading.

Tip# 5: Learn more about the time and place for the novel you’re reading.

Content writing likes to say “content is king” but in reality, “context is king.” This is true whether you’re writing for business, or if you’re reading a novel. If you don’t have any context for the story or the setting, you only get half of the enjoyment out of it.

Modern novels use the “show, don’t tell” technique. Again, this is in keeping with our visual media-rich environment. So, what if you decide to try your hand at a medieval romance or an 18th-century travel novel?

Well, the novels themselves may not have pictures, but you can give your imagination something to feed on by doing a little historical research. There are plenty of tapestries, documentaries, woodcuts, paintings, and more to give you an idea of what life was like in either era.

Enough, in fact, for you to have some idea of what to expect when you dive in. There’s a reason reenactments are still very popular and why you can still go to places like Colonial Williamsburg and discover how people lived hundreds of years ago. It’s fun!

It makes the people back them seem more real somehow, and it makes you appreciate some things we take for granted. Like central heating. And air conditioning. And meal delivery.

More than that, it helps you visualize what life is like for the characters in the book you’re reading. So much so, that the book you thought was too hard turns into one of your favorites!

Are you going to try these tips during your next reading session? Which one did you find most helpfu? Let me know in the comments below!

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