How to read and understand classic literature

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Classical literature includes ancient works that have stood the test of time and are still widely read today. Some well-known examples are Virgil’s Aeneid, Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, and William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Whether you are a student, an enthusiastic reader of classical literature, or an essay writer free in his imagination who wants to delve deep into the written topic – you may wonder where to start. Familiarizing yourself with a text before reading it, using reading strategies to improve comprehension, and looking for ways to reflect on the text can help you understand a work of classic literature.

Learn about the historical period of a book.

Understanding the era in which a book was written can make it easier or more complicated to read. By researching the historical events described in the book or that influenced its writing, you can better understand the novel’s narrative.

You can quickly understand a particular era or the author’s life experiences by doing an online search.

Read summaries of the work.

You can find descriptions or summaries of classic works of literature online, or you can read the book’s back cover to get a basic idea of what the story is about. Knowing a little about the plot, characters, and setting can make it easier to pursue and understand the reading as you begin.

Just be sure not to replace reading the text with summaries. Remember that a summary is someone else’s interpretation of the facts. Although this is objective, it may contain some biases as to the character’s motives and possible meanings of events.

Ask questions.

If you know someone who has already read this classic work of literature, asking them some basic questions may help.

You can ask the person to give you an elementary explanation of the following elements:

  • the characters (the people and sometimes the animals in a work of fiction)
  • the setting (the place, time, and culture in which a novel takes place)
  • the plot (the things that happen in the course of the novel)
  • theme (the underlying concept, idea, or belief that runs throughout the novel)
  • the conflict (a difficulty that creates tension in the novel)
  • the climax (the turning point at which the tension, which creates the conflict, cannot increase any further and must be resolved)
  • the narrator (the one who tells the story, it can be a character in the story or someone else)

Consider reading an annotated edition. 

Many classic texts were written with vocabulary or historical context that can confuse contemporary readers. Reading an annotated version, which includes supplementary information and explanations, is easy to assimilate an otherwise complicated text.

In addition to reading an annotated text, try to have a dictionary or reading guide handy when reading the book. These supplemental materials can help you understand difficult terms and confusing chapters.

Don’t stop reading.

Even if you have trouble with the text, it is important to keep reading it to understand it. After reading for some time, you will begin to become familiar with the language, the setting, and the characters. If you find a difficult passage that you don’t understand, mark the page and mark the page with a checkmark.

If you find a difficult passage that you don’t understand, mark the page and skip it for the time being. You can return to it when you have a basic understanding of the text.

Omit footnotes during the first reading, as they may slow your progress.

Keep in mind that it is often necessary to read complex texts more than once. After you have read a work of classic literature once, the second reading will be much easier, and concepts that seemed confusing to you will make more sense.

Make comments in the margins of the text. 

If you are trying to understand a difficult text better, underlining passages may not be enough. Instead, try making comments in the margins to assimilate the text fully.

 The following comments or notes may help you better understand the material:

  • Summarize the enclosed passages.
  • Make notes on passages that relate to other passages earlier or later in the text.
  • Write down (and answer) questions about anything you did not understand.
  • Accept or reject what a passage says.

Try reading and learning with a group. 

Some readers learn best when working in a group setting. Joining a book club or enrolling in a literature class at your local college can allow you to discuss a novel with other readers and hear valuable input from the instructor.

You can search for book clubs in the area where you live by searching online.

Write a summary.

 After you finish reading the text or a chapter, commit to writing a summary of all the important events that occurred. Limit yourself to half a page or less, and be sure to address the main plot points, how those points affected each character, and how that chapter fits into the overall context of the book. Write chapter summaries without looking at the text or your notes. In this way, you will test your understanding of what you have read.

Tell someone what you have read.

Telling someone about something you have learned is a good way to get a better understanding. If you have a friend who is interested in classic literature, you might consider telling him or her about the text.

Even if you haven’t finished reading a text yet, you can benefit from describing what has happened so far in your own words.

Watch a movie adaptation.

Visualizing the book’s characters, setting, and plot points make it easier for many readers to assimilate the narrative. While watching a movie should not take the place of reading the book itself, it can help you better understand it.

For example, if you read a Shakespeare play, then watch a film version of it. Although some versions use creative staging and may remove some dialogue, you will be able to see much of the text come to life.

Read critical commentary and analysis of the book online.

When you finish reading the text, it can be helpful to learn about other people’s conclusions and interpretations.  


If you don’t understand a word the author uses, look it up in the dictionary. Your vocabulary will grow, and you will have a more comprehensive understanding of what you read.

If you read the translation of a book, look up different translations (unless you are reading the book for a class that requires you to read a certain version). You may find some versions easier than others, especially if you have to choose between an early 19th-century translation and a modern one, for example.

Have a good reading!