It might be a great story, and you want to be someone who has read the classics, but it’s hard to read old books. You know before you start that it’s going to be harder than a modern one, and much harder than “See What Crazy Thing These 10 Celebrities Did in High school”.
But you’ve decided to try it anyway. You sit down, open the book, and start reading. You’re probably still doomed. You’re focusing on a task that is not only difficult, but you aren’t even sure you’ll enjoy it. There’s a good chance you’ll be reaching for your phone after a couple of minutes. The constant multi-tasking we do in the modern world literally trains our brains to want distractions and kills our ability to focus.
Unfortunately, older books practically invite modern readers to break their focus. Every word you do not understand will make you pause. Every real world event it mentions that you’ve never heard about will confuse you. Everything it references that is foreign to a modern reader will pull you out of the story. It’s no wonder we reach for our phones when those distractions pile up.
Learning to focus on one task at a time can help solve the problem, but, more importantly, you should think of an old book as something to learn from as well as a story to experience. You, as a modern reader, were not the intended audience. You don’t have the same world view or common knowledge as a reader from the era the book was released. It’s hard to enjoy any kind of entertainment when you aren’t the intended audience.
That means you’ll need to learn a little about the world of that historic reader to appreciate it. The more you know about that world, the less distracted you’ll be. You need to, in small ways, become the intended audience. It’s not as hard as it sounds to get started, and it doesn’t take much time.
Keep References Handy
A dictionary is your first friend. Languages change over time and you’ll see unusual words. Sometimes you’ll discover a word used to have a different meaning. You’ll giggle when you see “ejaculates” in Sherlock Holmes stories. Ironically, books originally written in other languages are often easier for modern readers. Translators usually translate to contemporary English. I find it harder to understand Dickens than a good Tolstoy translation.
Your second friend is Wikipedia. A lot of events, beliefs, and people that may have been common knowledge when the book was released will be strange to you. Before reading something new, look up the Wikipedia pages for the author, the book, and any big historical events occurring at the time. That will usually be enough for a broad understanding. If you see a reference to something unfamiliar while reading, then pop back over to Wikipedia. Chances are it will have information a reader at the time would have been expected to know.
If you can, choose a good annotated edition. The good ones will save you from using Wikipedia or dictionaries. Anything a modern reader would not know will have a summarizing note. You can get by in 19th and 20th century English literature without annotations, but translated works will often be a problem.
If you are reading literature any older than the 19th century then an annotated edition is usually required. I do not recommend reading “Dante’s Divine Comedy” without an annotated edition. You’ll get the basic idea of what is happening, but not much else. It’s almost hopeless for a modern reader. For example, take this passage from Canto XII of “The Inferno”. Virgil has been leading Dante on his tour through Hell and explaining everything along the way. They are now in the seventh circle, first ring, and Virgil is speaking:
“Now I would have you know: the other time that I descended into lower Hell, this mass of boulders had not yet collapsed; but if I reason rightly, it was just before the coming of the One who took from Dis the highest circle’s splendid spoils…”
It doesn’t mean much until you look at the annotations in the edition I have. In an earlier note “Dis” is explained as the name for this lower realm of Hell. The event Virgil is referring to is explained in this note:
“I.e., Christ, in His descent into Hell, removed the souls of the just people of the Old Testament, thus robbing Satan of his most ‘splendid spoils’.”
The Problem With Money
In “War and Peace”, Nikolai Rostov loses 43,000 roubles playing cards. It’s the year 1806. Is that a lot?
Money in the 18th and 19th centuries had more concrete meaning to readers than it did in the 20th and now 21st centuries. Changes in incomes and rates of inflation for those centuries were small compared to today, and the relative value between currencies was remarkably stable due to gold and silver standards.
Authors in the 19th century often gave readers the exact incomes and holdings of characters because it was an easy way to establish their social status. The characters in Jane Austen novels considered themselves financially free of needs with incomes of at least 500 to 1000 pounds per year. The average income in Britain was 30 pounds per year in that period. A 20th or 21st century author is more likely to only imply how rich a character is — no actual income will be given but the author might say what kind of car they drive.
It’s hard to make good estimates for the value of things in the 19th century, and any earlier is practically hopeless. The best you are going to be able to get is a very rough idea. The relative value of goods and services were usually different from today. Rent and services were relatively cheaper, while physical goods like clothes and food were more expensive.
You can use the information below for a rough idea of how to understand money in British, American, French, and Russian literature.
It was common knowledge for readers in the 19th century that…
1 British pound typically equaled:
5 US dollars
25 French francs
6 to 10 Russian roubles (it is difficult finding information about the rouble).
measuringworth.com is a site that will perform rough calculations of how much an amount of money from a historical year would be worth today. It will do both US dollars and British pounds, and convert between them. It’s handy to have open when watching old movies too.
|The British Pound
British currency, pre-decimalization in 1971, is notoriously difficult to understand.
1 pound equaled 20 shillings(s).
A farthing was ¼ of a penny.
Prices looked like £1/5/6, or £1 5s 6d, which meant 1 pound 5 shillings and 6 pence.
The average annual income of a British worker in the early 19th century was 30 pounds.
The Mad Hatter’s hat shows a price of 10/6. That would be something like $56 today.
|The US Dollar
Annual income for a lower class general laborer in the early 19th century was around $144.
Tom Sawyer’s $6,000 treasure would be around $137,000 today.
|The French Franc
100 centimes equals 1 franc.
Average annual income in the early 19th century was 400-500 francs.
The count of Monte Cristo valued his fortune at 80 million francs in the 1830s. That would mean he was worth at least $600 million today.
|The Russian Rouble
100 kopeks equals 1 rouble.
It’s difficult to find income data for Russian workers in the 19th century. Annual incomes in the early to mid 19th century for lower classes could be between 90 to 750 roubles.
Nikolai Rostov lost 43,000 roubles playing cards in 1806. That would be something like $430,000 to $689,000 today.
Note: Where links are not provided information comes from Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century”, chapter 2.
Put Yourself in the Mood
Try to imagine a reader from the era the book was written. Most classics became successful because readers of that era found that book or style of book appealing. Partly this would have been the worldview of readers, but I find it helps if you can also be more like that reader with decisions about your surrounding environment. Think of it like a historical reenactment.
Turn off your phone. If you don’t mind reading without understanding everything the book references, then turn your off your laptop with Wikipedia too. Readers in the past did not have such distractions.
A physical book is best, but if you are using an e-reader, turn it to sepia mode. Dim the lights and read by a lamp. If you have a fireplace, sit by it. I sometimes choose the book based on the season. If you’re reading Mark Twain, sit out on the patio in summer. Jack London is good when you’re cooped up inside for the winter. Try Henry David Thoreau under a tree.
Have something to drink as well. Pour a bourbon for Mark Twain, a tea for Jane Austen, a brandy for Alexandre Dumas, hot cocoa for Jack London, or a chilled vodka for Leo Tolstoy.
Let yourself briefly leave the world you know. All good books can do that for you if you let them. When you experience what the intended audience would have seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and felt, you might begin to understand a little of why that book was so appealing.
The more you read and learn, the easier it is to get through classic literature. You build knowledge of the world it was written for, your ability to concentrate improves, and you get used to the old language and ideas.
So try it. It’s entertainment that’s good for you.