8 Hurdles for New Readers of Classic Novels (& How to Overcome Them)

Are you trying to read classic novels and struggling to finish them? 

Today I’ll cover the eight most common challenges for beginners in classic literature, many of which I’ve suffered myself. 

These roadblocks include a slow plot, disliking the characters, the book being too long, irrelevance, and more. 

I’ll also explain how I and other readers have overcome these challenges so they can finish more classic novels and get more enjoyment and enlightenment out of the experience. 

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Slow Plot

A slow plot is one of the biggest issues for new readers of classic novels, especially if you’re coming to them from fast-paced commercial fiction or popular television shows, where you’re constantly wondering what’s going to happen next. 

This problem has caused me to drop out of more books than any other challenge below. 

It’s the reason I failed to finish Catch 22, for example. 

I’d say that the thing that’s helped me get past this issue is identifying whether or not the classic you’re going to read is known for its gripping plot. 

If it’s not, then I change my expectations and figure out what it is known for. That way I’m not disappointed and bored. That way I have another reason to be reading the classic, whether that’s for beautiful language, philosophical significance, or complex characters. 

For example, David Copperfield’s plot is far from gripping. 

But Dickens’ observational powers are on full display, especially when he’s describing the people in the story, and this is a joy to experience, as it teaches you more about human nature, the people in your life, and yourself. 

So, when I’m reading this classic, I psych myself up to learn about people and psychology, and in doing so I’m constantly engaged even if the story itself is at a slow point.  

Here’s another example of shifting your reasons for reading the book.

If you were to read a plotless book like Catch 22, I’d recommend focusing on the humor, and making the laughs the point of reading the book, not what happens next. 

Of course, as with all of these challenges, there are many classic books that don’t pose them. 

Here are five classic novels with plots that’ll make you feel suspense, surprise, worry, and excitement: 

  • The Count of Monte Cristo
  • The Moonstone
  • The Sherlock Holmes Series
  • Of Mice and Men 
  • Animal Farm 
  • Call of the Wild 

Remember though, classic literature plays on the heart, mind, and soul through other means than plot, and, though important, it’s often the least impactful part of the story. 

Finding a character you identify with, a beautiful passage that gives articulation to some feelings or thoughts you’ve found hard to express, a singular scene that moves you to tears, a wise quote that helps you solve some problem you’ve been having — these are all worthwhile and at times life-changing rewards of reading classic literature.

Interested in trying a slow and careful read of a classic novel for maximum enlightenment and intellectual development? Check out my article on how I deep read classic novels

Disliking the Characters

A common complaint of beginners in classic literature is that they don’t like the main character. 

They find them to be annoying, mean, irrational, stupid, or, in the case of say Crime and Punishment, downright evil. 

Early in my reading career I tried to tackle Crime and Punishment. I failed to get past the first 150 pages because I just couldn’t stand Raskolnikov. 

This was an error. I just was too much of a novice to get past it. And I plan to return to the book soon. 

The reason it’s so easy to dislike characters in classic literature is because they are incredibly flawed. 

Why’s that so? 

Because, in classic novels, the writer is aiming for the most part to capture reality. And in real life, most people are imperfect. Most people have weaknesses, shortcomings, vices, and issues.

The kind baker is nice to all his customers, gives his leftovers to the homeless people on the street on his way home, then screams at his wife for not having dinner ready. 

This is life. We’re all works in progress, and you must treat the characters in the great novels in that way. 

They aren’t going to be like Kvothe in The Name of the Wind, who is so utterly bereft of incapacity that, while being a hero we all love, he’s also almost unbelievable at times. 

The bad parts of the characters should be seen as nasty inescapable aspects of human nature that you yourself may have to overcome, or that people in your life are struggling to defeat. 

They should be seen as material for reflection. In reading Crime and Punishment, I should’ve asked more questions instead of judging him as revolting for committing such a heinous crime. 

I should’ve asked what drove him to do such a thing? What drives criminals in the real world to kill indiscriminately? How can these people change? Will Raskolnikov change?

If I had done this, I would’ve been far more engaged than I was disturbed and angered. 

I recommend you do the same. 

Plus, even if you dislike the protagonist, there are likely going to be characters later on who you do enjoy. So don’t give up so soon. 

Lastly, take this as a chance to understand yourself. 

  • Why do you hate this character so much? 
  • Is it because they have a trait that someone in your life had and that led to discomfort on your part? 
  • Is it because of your life philosophy?
  • What does your fury say about your moral compass?
  • Does the character have a vice that you yourself have had at times? 

Using this feeling to explore your values, prejudices, and beliefs will be a revelatory experience that may help you grow as a person, or at least avoid becoming what you dislike about this character. 

Too Long & Dense

Many new readers of classic literature are overwhelmed by the size and density of books like The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, or David Copperfield. 

They feel like they’re moving too slowly through the book and that lack of progress can be demotivating. 

I’ve encountered this many times, and I’ve found a few tricks to get over it:

  • Take Breaks From the Book: I’ve been reading the 1,000-pager David Coppefield for two years now. I’ll usually read 250 or so pages over the course of a month, and then put it down for several months. I actually enjoy living with it for the long haul. 
  • Start with Shorter Books: Of course, you could also start with shorter books and work your way up to long ones. Do a 300-pager one month, then a 500-pager, then a 700-pager. You’ll notice you’re getting better at dealing with the slow progress with each book you finish. 
  • Use Audiobooks: Consider using Audible to do some of the reading while you’re doing chores, exercising, or commuting to work. If you combine this with reading the book, you’ll make much faster progress and feel motivated to keep pushing. 

It also helps to remind yourself that it’s okay to take it slow and to read other books alongside this behemoth. 

For instance, I’m reading Don Quixote right now and it’s 1,000 pages long. I’ve set myself the goal of reading 10 pages per day, which is pretty feasible, and I do it alongside other books I’m finishing at a much faster pace since they’re lighter and shorter. I’ve already finished two other books since I started it a month ago. 


It’s common for beginners in classic literature to complain about the novel’s irrelevance to their life, especially when compared to something more contemporary. 

To overcome this roadblock, I recommend using a bit of imagination. Stop reading whenever something in the book makes you feel a strong emotion, and interrogate the passage that did this to you. 

Perhaps, after just a bit of consideration, you’ll discover that the woman in the story reminds you of a former friend, or that the way the writer has described the streetlamp reminds you of a special place from your childhood. 

If you don’t stop and reflect, you won’t as easily discover these connections, and the relatability you seek will be missed. 

In the classics, since they are written about past times and far off places, you might have to work a bit harder to find relevance, but when you do, the payoff is grand, not just from the hard work but also because these classics are known for the intensity of their effects on readers. 

Another tip is to look for classics about themes that relate to something you’re going through. For example, if you just experienced heartbreak, Wuthering Heights might feel highly relevant. 

If you feel like you’ve been failing and struggling in an important aspect of life as of late, Old Man and the Sea will win you over. 

Just google “classics about x”, where x is something you want to explore (love, loss, war, bullying, education), and you’ll find some classics that feel highly relevant to your life. 

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Confusion About Character Behavior

If the setting and behavior of the characters keeps confusing you and seeming unbelievable, it’s time to gain some cultural and historical context. 

This will tell you about the world in which the characters inhabit, the common manners, their likely worldviews, and other things that’ll help you make sense of their behavior. 

For instance, if someone read Don Quixote without knowing that it took place at a time when chivalric romances dominated the minds of many readers, they wouldn’t get many of the jokes or understand why Don Quixote was riding around imagining he was a knight-errant. 

To get this context, you can’t go wrong with SparkNotes, or introductory lectures or videos online. There are plenty on YouTube. 

Benjamin McEvoy does great intros to classic works of literature in his “How to Read X” series. For example, here’s How to Read Anna Karenina.

The book might also come with an introduction, which will often give you a sense for what the world was like at the time it was written, as well as the author and their goals. 

Outdated References

If it’s outdated references driving you crazy, then the solution is pretty simple. 

Either look up every reference that is confusing, or buy an annotated copy of the classic novel, which will explain each unfamiliar reference in either the footnotes or the side of the page, while also cluing you into other interesting commentary.

You could also buy an Oxford Companion if you know you’ll be reading a lot of classic literature in a certain tradition. 

For example, here’s the Oxford Companion to English Literature

Complicated Language

If it’s unfamiliar words and long, complex sentences that’s giving you trouble, then you might want to reframe your purpose for reading these difficult books. 

Instead of thinking about this classic as a thrilling read, think of it as a project to improve your vocabulary and reading comprehension, and, as a result, your powers of communication. 

When you come to the book with the urge to learn new words and ways of expressing your thoughts, you won’t become frustrated whenever you encounter a tricky word or phrase.

You’ll be excited, since it will better help you reach your goal of becoming an articulate speaker or eloquent writer. 

Of course, you could also find books that use simple language. 

Below are some great writers known for their accessible prose: 

  • Ernest Hemingway
  • J.D. Salinger 
  • Jack London

That said, remember that challenging yourself, and watching your intellectual skills grow as a result, is part of the pleasure of reading classic literature, so don’t avoid tough prose forever.  

Long Detailed Descriptions

I was recently talking with my uncle about his favorite novels and he said he despises the ones that dedicate an entire page to describing the chair the main character is sitting in. 

I can definitely understand where he’s coming from. 

Even as someone with an affection for the well-written description, especially of the natural world, it can feel at times like the writer went a bit too far, primarily when it’s of household furniture or clothing, both of which are boring to me. 

If you keep running into this and it’s causing you to put down the classic, I’d say skip the super detailed parts. 

While in classics most details are there for a point, sometimes the point is small enough that skipping over them isn’t going to hurt your understanding of the book. 

Hopefully, the more you read, and the more you read about how literature works, the more you’ll come to see how those little details create a mood, hint at a feeling, or foreshadow an event. 

But, at the beginning, don’t worry so much about reading the long, tedious descriptions that drive you bonkers. 

Oh, and don’t read Moby Dick yet, unless for some reason whale anatomy gets you going. 

Want a 14-book reading plan for beginners trying to self-study literature? Grab one here

Bottom Line: Reading Classic Novels 

Reading classic novels is such a pleasure, and it’s a shame how many people give up after experiencing some of the challenges mentioned above. 

A lot of the time, the solution is to think of classics as something different than the type of media you usually consume. 

They aren’t like television, thriller novels, or movies. 

While many of them do have gripping plots and likable characters, they have so much more to offer, from wisdom and intellectual cultivation, to portals into other times and mirrors into your own soul. 

If you come to them looking for this, not just a quick read, you’ll surely have an easier time managing the other challenges.  

If you want some more tips on reading the classics, check out my ultimate guide for how to become a regular reader of classic novels

It’s designed for beginners and based very much on my own experience going from non-reader to obsessed with classic literature. 


After graduating college with an econ degree I realized I was still anything but well-educated. Over the last 4 years, I've been trying to fix that, autodidact-mode — by reading books and engaging in self-directed study across multiple subjects. On this blog, my goal is to share my learnings and help others get a well-rounded education outside of school. Education, after all, is a lifelong process, one well worth the investment.

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