How to Start Reading Classic Novels: A 10-Step Plan for Beginners

Do you want to become someone who regularly reads and enjoys classic novels, but aren’t quite sure where to start or how to approach the task? 

This is what I’ll help you figure out today in 10 easy steps.

I know a lot about this topic because I was once in your shoes. Now I read classic novels pretty much every day, and love doing it.

A younger me reading my favorite book of all time (Martin Eden)

I didn’t start reading classic literature until after college.

In fact, from ages 10-22, I read almost no books at all. 

As a child I was a reader, not of the classics but of novels in general. Exploring imaginary worlds was right up there with playing basketball and tag. 

But somewhere in adolescence the activity dropped in my hierarchy of activities from fun and exploratory to boring and restrictive — closer to brushing teeth than building a tree fort. 

Perhaps it was the quizzes, the overanalyzing, the teacher’s certainty of their interpretation, or my rebellious nature — likely some combo. Perhaps I was also too young to appreciate the classics. 

Either way, in school I used SparkNotes to read the classic books we were assigned, and bullshitted my way through the essays. 

Now I look back and think about how much I missed out. 

Maybe you’re feeling that way too.

But don’t worry! It’s not as hard as some make it out to be to read classics.

Plus, the classics are really better the older you get. Experience and education improve your ability to understand the author, relate with the characters and events, and absorb the wisdom inside. 

In this article, you’ll learn 10 steps you can take to go from non-reader to regular reader of classic literature (while enjoying the books you read). 

You’ll also get some tactics that helped me become a daily reader of classic novels and overcome the challenges many beginners face. 

How to Become a Regular Reader of Classic Novels (10 Steps)

Now I’ll go into the 10 steps beginners can take to get into reading classic novels. It’s very much based on my own progression from non-reader to avid reader.

Here’s a snapshot of the steps:

  1. Form Personal Reasons for Reading the Classics
  2. Subscribe to Several Classic Booktubers
  3. Pick an Accessible Classic That Fits Your Tastes
  4. Form a Reading Habit
  5. Find a Reading Buddy
  6. Read the Classic Using the Timer Trick
  7. Watch Online Summaries/Analyses of the Classic (optional)
  8. Review the Classic in Your Own Words
  9. Start Your Next Classic Novel (or take a break)
  10. Build a Reading Plan and Keep Developing as a Reader

Below I’ll go in depth into each step, sharing plenty of helpful tips and tactics for getting the most out of the reading experience. 

Quick note: The most important thing as a beginner is to enjoy the experience, so if some of these tips stop you from doing so for whatever reason, just skip them and come back to them when you’re further along in your journey as a reader. Except reading the book; that one’s kind of important 🙂

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1. Form Concrete, Personal Reasons for Reading the Classics 

With any new undertaking, it helps to have strong, clear, personal reasons for doing so.

A vague sense of wanting to read the classics and lead a more intellectual life is a great starting point.

But it’s usually not enough fuel to last you through the challenges you’re bound to face on your adventure of becoming an avid reader of the classics. 

That’s not to say reading classic books is a chore — it’s one of the most engrossing and stimulating activities I do. 

But, at times, you will find that it can be hard to muster the motivation to read and stay consistent, mostly because it’s new, difficult, and less comfortable than what you’re used to doing (all signs by the way that it’s changing your brain for the better). 

Your reasons for reading the classics will help you push on past these mental hurdles. 

They’ll help you choose the Dickens’ novel over Netflix, Chekov’s short stories over scrolling on your phone. 

Preferably these reasons you come up with are ones that mean something to you rather than reasons someone else has given you. 

When my high school English teachers assigned me books, I didn’t read them. The reasons for reading it were extrinsic. It was to get an A on the exam, and there were ways of doing that without reading the book. 

Ideally, you have identified some way in which your life will improve and become more full and meaningful if you start reading the classics. 

The Reasons I Read the Classics Almost Every Day

I’m going to share why I read these dusty old books. 

Perhaps this will give you some idea of why it’s worth doing. 

Here are my personal reasons for devoting 45 minutes each day to reading classic literature: 

  • Reading the classics makes me a better writer, thinker, and speaker. 
  • It makes me see the world in new ways, so ordinary things become more interesting.
  • Reading the classics improves my vocabulary and critical reading skills. 
  • Classic literature constitutes a core part of my self-education and edification. 
  • I feel less alone in my experiences when I read the classics.  
  • They transport me to different cultures, time periods, social classes, places, and minds.
  • I learn about history, philosophy, and other subjects via classic works of fiction. 
  • They’re intellectually stimulating, emotionally moving, and at times life-altering. 
  • My favorite writers, thinkers, and leaders spent time reading classic literature. 

I recommend coming up with your own 3 reasons for why you want to start reading the classics. 

Then put that list somewhere you’ll regularly see it so you’re consistently inspired.

WHY is the question we need to answer before embarking on any new adventure; it’s the greatest source of fuel to stay the course. So take time with this. 

Need some inspiration? Check out 3 underrated benefits of reading classic literature.  

2. Subscribe to Several Classic Literature YouTube Channels

I have a few classic literature YouTubers I follow. 

These stellar readers and their enthusiasm for books never fail to charge my obsession with classic literature. 

They also teach me about cool reading challenges and techniques that I get excited to try out. 

I recommend finding some of these people of your own. 

I’m leaning towards creating a YouTube channel myself, about self-studying the classics across the humanities — but I’m just not there yet (camera shy lol) so I’ll tell you my favorites:

  • Benjamin Mcevoy: Has incredible videos introducing classic works of literature. (This guy really took my reading to the next level; can’t recommend him enough). 
  • Tristian and the Classics: Has amazing deep dive analyses of classic literature. 

There are plenty of others out there.

They’ll inspire you to read and help you overcome doubt, find great books, understand and approach these books, and more. 

Of course, this blog will do the same! The entire “reading the classics” section of Knowledge Lust is devoted to it. 

But it’s nice to have videos to consume about this lifestyle of reading classic literature too. Gotta hit yourself from all sides! 

3. Select an Accessible Classic That Match Your Tastes 

Generally, the most accessible classic novels for beginners are shorter, more modern novels with simpler language and gripping plots.  

One misconception about the classics is that they’re all highly academic and plotless. But that’s not the case at all. 

The Call of the Wild is about a dog stolen from its owner who goes on a dangerous adventure in Alaska during the gold rush. It’s a thrilling read. 

The most accessible novel for you specifically depends on your personality. The book will likely have the qualities listed above, while also conforming to your particular tastes. 

Like crime fiction? Read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. 

Like love stories? Read anything by Jane Austen. 

Like humor? Read Confederacy of Dunces or The Hitchhiker’s guide (two of my favorite books by the way). 

There’s a perfect gateway classic for everyone. 

Here are some classic novels that many new readers, including myself, find to be on the more accessible side. 

The 7 Classic Novels That Got me Hooked on Classic Literature

Here are seven classic books I think are highly accessible for beginners (these constitute my first plunge into classic literature): 

  • The Call of the Wild: About a dog who joins a dogsled pack in the Alaskan gold rush. Great for dog lovers and outdoor adventure seekers. This is an all-time favorite of mine.
  • The Old Man and the Sea: An aging fisherman has been in a slump and goes out to sea and tries to catch a giant marlin. A touching story ensues. 
  • Animal Farm: A pack of barn animals band together against the farmers to take power into their own hands. 
  • The Martian Chronicles: This is a series of short stories about Earth’s exploration of Mars. The stories range from whimsical and whacky to downright disturbing. 
  • The Lord of the Rings: “One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.” The most epic and beautiful story of good vs evil and friendship that I’ve ever encountered. A 4.6 on Goodreads is unheard of…
  • Black Boy: Technically an autobiography, Richard Wright describes his tumultuous upbringing and coming of age in the American South during the early 1900s. 
  • Pride and Prejudice (might be a little harder since it’s older): A classic love story that surprises and delights with twists and a healthy dose of wry humor. 

If these don’t scratch the itch, here’s another list of classic novels for beginners

4. Form a Reading Habit 

Alright, you’ve picked a classic novel to read. 

Now it’s time to decide when you’re going to read it each day and for how long. 

This will make you more likely to stick to the process. 

I know if I don’t have a meditation time scheduled every day I’ll usually end up skipping it. The same goes for any new habit I’m trying to start. 

So make a commitment to do it around the same time every day. Hopefully you’ll find you’re picking it up whenever you have a spare moment, but even if you don’t, at least you’ve done your reading for the day. 

At What Time Should I Read the Classic?

It seems like people benefit most from doing it before work or before bed.

I will caution you that classics can be harder to read when sleepy than your average book. The language is just often more complex, as are the ideas, so a bit of alertness is helpful. 

How Many Pages Should I Read Per Day of the Classic Novel?

As for how many pages, I’d aim for 5 or 15 pages per day if you’re just starting out. 

Easy wins fill you with satisfaction and make you want to stick with it. 

Also you don’t want the task to be so big that you shy away from it at the moment. 

Trust me, I’ve set far too many reading goals I can’t possibly achieve, and it always leaves me feeling down about myself because I keep skipping reading sessions. 

Once you’ve strung enough days together of reading your goal page rate and it feels easy, you can increase it. 

Can I Read Classics with an Audiobook?

You can definitely listen to the classics on audiobooks if that’s your preferred format. 

I know I can’t because my mind drifts off and I like to do marginalia in the book, but some people love it. 

And if reading physical books is too straining right now, audiobooks can be a great way to break into reading the classics. 

Audible offers a 30-day free trial where you get one free audiobook (two if you’re an Amazon Prime member). 

5. Find a Reading Buddy (Optional)

Consider reading the classic with a friend or peer. 

If you can swing this I highly recommend it. 

You’ll hold each other accountable and you’ll have someone to talk with about the book.

You can also help each other work through parts you don’t understand. 

I have a couple friends who read classics and sometimes when I’m starting a new one I’ll let them know and they’ll read it with me. 

Then we’ll have a beer and talk about what we think of it, etc., It’s not formal — more fun really than anything. 

I wrote an article on the benefits of a reading buddy for self-education. Check it out. 

Alternative Option: You could also join an online book club — though I know that can be tough for the introverted beginner. I’m still even intimidated by them and I’ve been reading classics for years now. 

6. Read the Classic Using the Timer Trick

Now it’s time to find a comfortable spot and read the classic novel. 

It’s best to find a place where you have peace and quiet and are free from distraction. That way you’ll be able to focus on the book. 

If you’re worried you won’t be able to sit and focus on the classic for a long time, then use the timer trick. I still use it today. 

Set a timer for whatever time you consider easy. That might be 10 minutes to start. Even if it’s one minute it doesn’t matter. You can build up over time. 

When the timer goes off, close the book if you feel tired, or keep going if you’re in the flow. 

This strategy works by making the task less scary, and thus makes you more likely to do it. 

Sometimes I’ll set one for 20 minutes when I’m feeling tired or demotivated. 

I’ll think “Alright Sam, you can do 20 minutes. That’s nothing for you.” 

Sometimes when the alarm sounds I’ll run downstairs to go watch tv. Other times I’ll end up reading for 50 minutes because I was so lost in the book. 

3 Ways to Enhance the Reading Experience 

There are some tactics you can deploy to increase your engagement with the text and draw more enjoyment and spiritual/intellectual enrichment from it. 

Here are some ways to enhance your reading experience when it comes to classic literature: 

  • Do Marginalia (but don’t overthink it): Write your reactions to the story, language, insights, etc., in the margins. Put yourself into conversation with the writer. Sometimes I just write “Hell yeah!” when the writer says something that I totally agree with.
  • Capture your Favorite Sentences/Passages: Underline and/or highlight the parts of the classic novel that really speak to your heart or mind. 
  • Try to Draw Connections to Real Life: Whenever you can, try to connect something in the classic to your life, a political event, another work of art, or people in your life (including yourself). This will make the classic more relevant and thus more interesting. 

Doing some combination of these reading tactics will not just improve the reading experience. 

It’ll also help you retain the story and find lessons about life and insights into human nature.

You’ll also become better at talking about the book, so when someone asks you what you thought of it or what it was about, you’ll have something interesting to say instead of just getting nervous and red in the face. (still happens to me more than I’d care to admit by the way). 

Interested in deep reading a classic? It’s more of an intermediate strategy, but if you want to try it out, I have an article explaining my 3-stage process for deep reading classic novels. It might just be cool to check out what you can develop into as a reader with a bit of practice.  

Do I Need to Get Historical/Cultural Context Before Reading the Classic?

A lot of people recommend getting historical/social context, and while it is helpful, I don’t find that it’s necessary for a first read as a beginner, especially if you’re reading one of the books I recommended in step 3. 

I knew next to nothing about 20th century Cuba when I read The Old Man and the Sea, and I still thoroughly enjoyed it. 

This brings up an important point. 

The classics are pleasurable as self-contained stories. That’s part of why they’re still recommended today and not just historical artifacts studied by academics in the ivory tower. 

They’re still widely read in part because they’ve continued to touch people generation after generation. They play on existential themes that all cultures across all times find important and interesting. 

Now, if you want to go learn a bit about the time/place in which the book was written, go ahead. 

It’ll enhance the experience a bit, especially for something like 1984 which is a political novel against totalitarianism, a dangerous political ideology that defined the history of 20th century Europe and led to some of its most disgusting horrors (concentration camps, Communist Russia, etc.,).

Some readers like to read the introduction in the front of the book (just be warned these might have spoilers — though the plot is not really the point with the classics). 

Just don’t let this part hold you back. On a similar note…

Accept that Misunderstandings are Bound to Happen

I’ve been reading classic literature on pretty much a daily basis for 5 years now and I still regularly encounter passages that go over my head.

That’s just part of the process. 

It could be that the passage is rooted in social and historical context that I’m unaware of, or that I’m just not well-read enough yet to get the allusion, or that I’m just still not there yet intellectually. 

When you start reading classic literature, you’re not going to get everything. 

And you have to accept that, or else the entire time you’ll just be worrying about it, which is no fun at all. 

As with any skill, the more you do it the better you’ll get. 

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7. Read or Watch Online Summaries/Analyses (Optional) 

Using online summary websites like SparkNotes or SuperSummary can help you understand the book on a deeper level and clear up any confusions you might have had during the reading process. 

It’ll also probably give you an appreciation for how much thought went into writing the classic, and how endlessly interpretable it is. 

That said, don’t get too hung up on this if it’s too much work or if you find it boring. 

The real thing you should be trying to do is to become someone who derives pleasure and fulfillment out of reading classics. That way you’ll keep doing it, and keep improving as a reader.

Later on, reading summaries and analyses by other skilled readers might be something you seek out for fun. 

I’m at this point now. For the books I love I’ll usually seek out some secondary literature about them. 

But I remember 3 years ago after I read Wuthering Heights I watched some videos analyzing the story and I got a bit bored and frustrated at myself for not noticing all the things this expert reviewer noticed (which is silly because they probably spend 3 times as long reading and thinking about it than I did).

So, as with any of these tips, don’t get hung up on it if it bothers you and makes you want to throw your classics and the whole enterprise of reading them into your fireplace. 

8. Review the Classic in Your own Words 

You know those people who can speak effortlessly about the books they read? 

You ask them what they thought of the book and they have an articulate, thoughtful answer. 

That’s not off the cuff. It’s a result of practice.

These serious readers spend time thinking about the books they read. They reflect on the story, language, characters, themes, or some other element of the work of literature. 

The best way to force yourself to think about the book this way is to write about it. It doesn’t have to be an essay or anything more than 150 words. It can also be totally informal. 

Here’s a general structure I like to follow for short reviews of classics: 

  1. What was the classic about? (basically 1-2 sentences summarizing the story in your own words.)
  2. What did the work of literature mean to you? (try to find 1 lesson you drew from it?)
  3. What did you think of it? (aka did you like it and why? What was your favorite part?)

Why do this? 

Well, for starters, you’ll have an answer when people ask you what it was about. And having that answer can be extremely motivating. 

I know I’m still proud when I’m able to say something about the novel I just read. I know, I know — ego is the enemy — but a bit of an ego boost will encourage you to keep reading classic literature, and that’s what we’re after here. 

Even if no one asks you what the story was about or what you thought of the book you’ll still have proved to yourself that you read the classic productively. And that can be deeply encouraging to a beginner. 

I want to reiterate that this review can be one short paragraph of a few sentences and done in a minute or two. 

Here’s mine for Confederacy of Dunces:

If you want to keep writing on the book and how it relates to your life (amazing!). 

But even just taking a minute to reflect will make a total difference in your comprehension of the story and your understanding of what you think about it (we often don’t know what we think of something until we sit and write about it). 

I used to skip reviewing classics and barrel onto the next one. 

Since I made the change and started doing this it has had such a big impact on my retention of the novels that I made a 2024 challenge to review every book I read. 

Check out my article 10 reasons to review the books you read for more on this.  

9. Start the Next Book (or Take a Break in Between)

Congrats! You finished the process of reading a classic novel. 

Hopefully you now have the bug for the classics and want to keep exploring the great books. 

If you liked the author, consider reading another of their books. If you didn’t love them, try another on the list in step 3, or one you’ve always been drawn to. 

Also, if you want to take a break and read something else more current or more in your comfort zone, that’s a great idea! Sort of like a runner taking a few weeks jogging slowly after a hard 10k race. 

Also, you might find that the classic was so moving that you need some time to digest its insight and wisdom. In other words, you might need a break from reading entirely. 

That’s okay too! And something even the most experienced classic readers do. 

These books aren’t meant to be slurped up like ramen noodles. They’re meant to be chewed slowly like a fine skirt steak, dipped regularly into the chimichurri of life experience. That way they become all the more emotionally flavorful and intellectually nutritious. 

By the way, I have a 5 step guide for getting into poetry if that’s something you’re interested in. 

10. Create a Reading Plan & Keep Growing as a Reader

At this point, you’ve read two classics, and you’re well on your way to growing as a reader. 

Now I’d recommend creating a reading plan that excites you.  It could be based around a specific topic, genre, period, author, or movement. 

Here are some ideas:

  • 5 classic works of literature about heartbreak.
  • 3 classic novels by Philip Roth. 
  • 7 classic works of literature by the beat generation. 
  • 3 classic Russian novels. 

I have a whole guide on how to create an annual reading plan that will walk you through my 8 step process for building one. Check it out. 

Reading Classic Literature is a Practice 

Remember, with each classic you read, you’ll become better at reading and enjoying them. 

I used to dislike Jane Austen. Her language was too complex, her sense of humor was a mystery to me, and her love stories were too sappy for my taste. I couldn’t get through Pride and Prejudice 5 years ago when I first tried. 

But now, after years of practice, I see the appeal. 

Her wit and ironical sense of humor often makes me laugh out loud. And her analyses of people are always eye-opening. And I can compulsively read her.

I hope that with time and dedication you come to appreciate the great works of imaginative literature that have the power to change lives and create cultures. 

I hope they give you what they have given me. 

I hope they reveal to you details about life that before went unseen.

I hope they give you a new pair of glasses to view the world in a novel, interesting light. 

I hope they give you new ways to articulate your thoughts and express your ideas and observations about life and humanity. 

I hope that with each classic you read you learn something about yourself. 

And I hope that these glimpses into your soul fortify you against the chaotic and confusing world we inhabit. 

Good luck to you.

And know that Knowledge Lust is here to help you on this journey to becoming a great reader of the classics. 

If you want to take things a step further, check out my ultimate guide on how to self-study English literature on your own

Or, if you want a book-centric approach to self-studying literature, check out my 14-book reading plan for beginners:

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P.S. Remember what Naval Ravikant said, “​​Read what you love until you love to read.”


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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