Difficult Books (And How To Read Them)

You know the feeling. For weeks you’ve breezed through book after book but now you’re stuck. You’re still interested in the story, so you won’t give up, but it’s just not easy to read.

It stinks. And I feel like that right now, actually. Gregory Maguire’s Wicked was on my to-read list for ages (because retellings are awesome!) so I was disappointed to realize that I was not merrily skipping through it, as it were. Instead, I am slogging through it. (Interesting concept, just not written the way I would like.) It’s silly to be frustrated by this and yet I am because, dang it, I am a Bookworm and I should never admit that a book is difficult! I should read effortlessly!

Except, that’s not very realistic. Not every book is as easy to read as The Very Hungry Caterpillar or The Hunger Games or, god help me, the James Patterson Pageturners. (Actually, forget I mentioned those. They’re a waste of time. Even very short amounts of time.) Not every book should be that easy to read. Challenges are good. How else will we learn, or expand our bookish interests?

With that in mind, what makes some books more difficult to read than others? I chose four things, listed from least to most difficult, and how I like to read them.


This isn’t a common problem for me – most of the books I read are at least three hundred pages – but every so often, I do hit a roadblock. Based on the amount of time I have to read (and my interest in the story, which varies from book to book), I usually read a three-hundred-page book in two or three days.

By that logic, I should finish a thousand-page monstrosity like A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin in ten days at the most, right? Um. No. Why? Because I have never found a really long book (upwards of five hundred pages) with a fast plot. Maybe I just don’t know where to look but in my experience, it doesn’t happen. Long books have complex plots – that’s why they’re so long. And that’s why it took me a month and a half to read A Storm of Swords.

How to read super-long books: I have two methods. The first has me attempting to read the whole entire book in an afternoon, or an evening, or a day. The catch, of course, is that while I certainly have free time, I don’t typically have that much free time. And when I do I don’t use it all for reading – there are other things I love to do, like writing!

The other way involves reading part of a long book, and then reading part of another book, and then repeating the whole thing until you have finished the long book. The other book can be another long book. It can be a short book. It can be several books. Whatever. It just keeps me from becoming bored, because if I don’t do that then I end up reading the long book and nothing else for like a week. And that’s just not my thing. That’s boring. I like to be engrossed in multiple stories at once.


I love vocabulary. I think I’m pretty good at the subject – I stopped studying it a long time ago because I learned all fifteen-hundred-plus words in the vocabulary book in one month. So while vocabulary doesn’t usually give me trouble, when it does, it’s very frustrating. I keep feeling like I’ll miss an important aspect of the story because I guessed that a word meant X but it actually meant Y, which puts a whole new spin on the sentence in which it appears.

William Shakespeare’s plays are a good example of this. His works aren’t difficult to read because he wrote about boring stuff. Are you kidding me? Deaths everywhere! And quite a lot of crude jokes to boot. No, his stories are difficult to read because nowadays we don’t speak like he wrote. I have never been able to read any works of Shakespeare without referring to “translations” to modern English, because I’m not familiar with the vocabulary.

But you know what? That’s not a bad thing. I’m glad I read some plays and even gladder that I finally understood what was going on because otherwise, I would’ve missed out on some awesome stories.

How to read books with difficult vocabulary: With a dictionary nearby. No, really. Yeah, it isn’t the most fun way to read – stopping frequently to look up a meaning – but otherwise you’ll be in the dark when it comes to meanings and that’s even less fun.


Consider the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The individual books aren’t that long, really. All right, so they’re not two hundred pages – try adding another hundred pages to each – but they shouldn’t be as difficult to read as they are.

Well, Tolkien was many things, many wonderful things, but a pacing-genius he was not. True, some parts of the trilogy are complex, but others are quite straightforward: the Fellowship walks from point A to point B. And it takes twenty pages, because each footstep, bathroom break, and nap is recounted in great detail.

And then the sections describing battles proceed at normal speed, or even faster than that. It’s bizarre. It’s the reason I procrastinated on reading Lord of the Rings and then took a couple of months to read it. It was lovely, truly, but it is so. Freaking. Slow.

How to read slow books: Don’t read these at night or you’ll fall asleep.

No, but really. Don’t. Unless you want to fall asleep. On a slightly more serious note, what I like to do with slow-paced books is, again, alternate with other stories. Quick stories. Short stories.


I encounter difficult styles of writing most often with the classics. This quality is partially related to vocabulary – flowery, over-the-top usage of words – but there’s more to it than that, I think.

Many old books have sentences that go on and on, for ages and ages, because the authors were annoying little twerps who thought they were just the greatest people on the planet and confused quality with quantity, and it’s quite difficult to read that type of writing because by the time you reach the end of the sentence you have forgotten how it originally began or what point it was supposed to lead to.

Am I right?

How to read books with overly complex, dense styles of writing: Read something drastically different at the same time to stop yourself from becoming frustrated. I don’t mean literally at the same time, you know. Duh. Unless you can do that, in which case you’re far more talented than I am. But try something else that doesn’t require you to read every sentence six times in order to work out what the author meant.

And on that note, I think tonight I’ll finish The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and continue with Wicked some other time.

And on another note, I just realized that I meant to include books with sensitive subject material because those are difficult too. But I forgot. Gah. Anyway.

What qualities do you think make books difficult? And what was the most difficult book you have ever read?


About nevillegirl

Elizabeth. University of Iowa class of 2019. Triple majoring in English & Creative Writing, Journalism, and Gender, Women's, & Sexuality Studies. Twenty-one-year-old daydreamer, introvert, voracious reader, aspiring writer, and lesbian. Passionate about feminism, mental health, comic books, and cats.
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12 Responses to Difficult Books (And How To Read Them)

  1. Sunny Smith says:

    I think you hit the nail on the nose. For me it’s the pacing that KILLS a book. A close second is style. I know I should read the classics, but the problem is that they’re so slow and written so differently from modern lit.

    I agree; breaking up the boring books (with quick reads) always helped me get through them when I had to read them for school.

    • nevillegirl says:

      I think you mean on the head, but I won’t judge. 😛

      Indeed. It’s something I struggle with in MY writing soooo… maybe I shouldn’t complain about others’ writing, but trying to fix my own has really made me notice how slowly some stories start!

      If you want a really good classic, try The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. 😀 It’s so funny!

  2. Cait says:

    Ohhhh no. I have Wicked to read soon. I’m REALLY Excited for it, but I absolutely suck at all things difficult-in-books. My brain just shuts down. I really want to like all the books, but I really struggled reading LOTR and things like The Bone Season. And every time I slog through one I end up feeling like a snivelling child and need to go back to the junior section. Which I do. *sigh* Most definitely don’t read them at night, I agree. x)

    • nevillegirl says:

      At the rate I’m going, I’ll probably still be reading Wicked when you start it and then we can complain about the pacing together. xD

      I always feel like “what did I get myself into now” because I usually LOVE the story, want to know what happens next, love the characters, but find that the style/pacing/etc is making it really hard to finish the story (and find out what happens) as quickly as I’d like.

  3. Miriam Joy says:

    Les Mis is one of the most difficult books I ever read. It’s long (1600 pages in many editions, fewer with small print), and dense, with infinite digressions as Victor Hugo indulged his love of non fiction. And then multiple characters die in the space of a sentence. -_-

    Shakespeare is great fun if you study it. I’m pretty good at determining the meaning of phrases, but at times it’s necessary to consult folks. We should have a Skype Hamlet session some time.

    • nevillegirl says:

      I keep telling myself I’ll read Les Mis this summer and then I look at it and just sort of whimper. Because it’s so loooooong.
      Yeah, that’s irritating. In The Hobbit I think Fili and Kili died in like a sentence. It was all “so there was this humongous battle and LOADS OF FIGHTING EVERYWHERE and then it ended whee Bilbo was glad about that ohhhh yeah and then two dwarves died hahaha!” Like. Tolkien. What.

      Yep! I’m studying poetry next for school and my mom asked if there were any poets I had in mind and right away I said SHAKESPEARE. He’s great to study.

      Woe is me. For I have neither a Skype, nor would I probably be allowed to Skype with a random person. (I mean… you’re not really random, we’ve blog-known each other for a few years now, and are even FB friends but… IDK.)

      • Miriam Joy says:

        Also you should read TS Eliot and Dylan Thomas because they are good poets. 🙂

        Nah, we’ll figure it out. Show your parents my YouTube videos so they know that I’m not a random old man. They can even sit in on the beginning of the conversation if it would put their minds at rest. Distance learning! And you can video chat via FB 🙂

    • nevillegirl says:

      Really? I just kind of stumble my way through FB. I don’t know half the things you can do with it.

  4. I agree with all of these points–of course, content itself can also make you procrastinate reading. Mockingjay is by far the most exhausting book I’ve read in a long time, simply because awful. stuff. continously. happened. It was a slog. I have mixed feelings about reading more than one thing at once (I can get discombobulated, ha) but in a case like that, it’s defintely solid advice!

    • nevillegirl says:

      Yep, I added a sentence to that right after I published the post, actually. I’d forgotten to discuss content… 😛 But it’s true. It’s hard to read something that makes you cry your eyes out, or frequently put it down because you just can’t take it any longer.

  5. Strix Spell says:

    Nevillegirl, you honestly read my mind! I mean I’ve been trying to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy since what, fourth grade but it is slow and I lose my page and I get lost in the book or drift off to sleep or something. And for classics. My dad says that classics are important but it is hard to read the style. I would call it over elaboration. I’m okay with Shakespeare mainly because of Doctor Who but I don’t read his plays for fun.

    • nevillegirl says:

      Ahaha, thanks! (Or you’re welcome – I’m not sure which.)
      *nods* I first tried to read The Fellowship of the Ring when I was eight but it is super-hard to read (at least for me) so I finally read the whole series, multiple attempts later, at sixteen. Totally worth it, but all the same – Tolkien has a very dense writing style.

      Doctor Who! 😀 I hope there’s another Shakespearan episode, this time in series eight. They could call it Twelfth Night!

      (Also… I see from your blog that apparently I am one of your favorite bloggers? *blush* And you’re on the YWP? What’s your username?)

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