Back in high school, teachers provided me with the skills that helped when a book challenged my ability to pay attention. Without that influence and as a slow reader, I fell into a pattern with comfort books (easy-to-read books read primarily for relaxation). Tackling a book like Wolf Hall, with its lack of antecedents, or The Good Death, with its dense factivism, diminishes my TBR consumption from slow plow to long slog. I’m not sure why I decided to read Wolf Hall and The Good Death concurrently, but I did. I’ve always had self-punitive reading tendencies. This post is for those of us who choose to go beyond comfort books and need a refresher on tips and tricks to tackle challenging books without returning to the demoralizing practice of gutting through it.
When books don’t use best practices, like antecedents (I’m looking at you, Wolf Hall) or dense factual passages (That’s you, The Good Death), one helpful practice is scaffolding. Using this technique, a reader performs specific functions before reading, during reading and after reading.
* Establish a purpose for reading that particular book. What do you want to get out of this alternative take on Thomas Cromwell? As part of the Anglican community, it’s expected that we’ll read all the Tudor things. I’m terrible at faking, so I buckled under the pressure.
* Activate prior knowledge. What do you already know about the Tudor court? “Divorce, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” Check. Ready for next step.
* Establish a support network. This network used to include teachers and classmates (or fellow confirmands), but those are difficult to come by without a class or book club. Fortunately, the bookish community online is strong. I took to social media.
* Develop a vocabulary list or list of terms. You can group these into themes and see what develops. You’ll be ready to pick up everything in context this way. I’ll give Mantel her due, Wolf Hall comes with charts! I needed them, because I am not likely to complete this task.
* Finally, create a space conducive to reading. I sat under my grapefruit tree. I posted about that too.
* Notice text structures. Fiction text structures (narrative, expository, dearth of antecedents, etc.) and non-fiction text structures (descriptive, sequential, cause/effect, etc.) differ. If you understand the presentation, then when an author densely packs a crapton of facts that read like a textbook, you can better understand the message. The table of contents for The Good Death used creative rather than descriptive chapter titles, so it took me a couple or three chapters to get a feel for Neumann’s big picture.
* Visualize the setting. If you create your own mental representation of the spaces in the book based off clues (connotative adjectives, for example), then you can imagine the characters occupying that space and their relationships to one another. Because The Good Death is nonfiction, the setting is often not concrete. I had to understand the larger legal and social context surrounding death in the U.S. The activation of prior knowledge (not just my experience, but a number of other books I had read on the subject) was key.
* Regulate your reading. Set a pace for how fast you want to read, predict what comes next, develop questions and go back and reread passages so that you can answer your own questions. While I did a great deal of re-reading for Wolf Hall, I set a pace for reading The Good Death. That pace was Dory inspired; “Just keep reading, keep on reading….”
After Reading: This is where my school teacher would make me take a test or write a paper, but that seems like overkill. You can blog it if you’d like, but it’s enough to go back out into the Twitterverse to let everyone know you conquered.
Bonus Suggestion: Read along with an audio book. This is not cheating! This enhances the experience of the book. Don’t take my word for it. Also, Simon Slater KILLS it in his narration of Wolf Hall (Affiliate Link). I couldn’t have read Wolf Hall without him.
If all this fails, as it did when I attempted to read A Tale of Two Cities in middle high school (with the support of teachers, classmates, my mother and my brother, with the help of Cliff’s Notes and watching movie versions and listening to the unabridged audiobook), then who cares if you read that book anyway? That book is dumb. People shouldn’t make reading hard. We get it, authors! You’re smart and creative and think on a higher plane and all that. Meanwhile, I’m going to invest my book dollars into some good comfort reads (and maybe one or two or eleven challenging books).