How to Approach a Challenging Book

On my Homepage section, About This Site, I said that LGBTQ+ Literature & Cinema is for everyone. But some artists, such as Shakespeare and Woolf, originally made me feel a bit overwhelmed.

They use complex language (even though Shakespeare wrote, 400 years ago, for a popular audience), offer subtle psychological insights (Woolf pioneered ‘stream of consciousness’), and come from worlds unlike my own background (thankful every day for the scholarship that made college possible).

Here are some tips, based on how I roll, whether it’s a Shakespeare play or Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (that entered the public domain in 2021) or any (at first!) daunting subject.

Start with a Summary

I suggest beginning with a plot synopsis. Then you can know the characters and basic story. You can find a summary of almost any book at Wikipedia. Or do a search for the title along with the word “summary” or “synopsis.”

I love language – whether words, or film’s images and sounds – so, once I have a bead on the plot, I can focus on the connections between content (feelings and ideas) and form (the words on the page, or images/sounds from the screen). And with, say, Shakespeare or Woolf, or filmmakers Murnau or Eisenstein, we can revel in the beauty of how they express… everything.

Maybe Add a Movie

It might also be interesting, for books, to see if there is a film version. There can be some wonderful discussions in a comparative Fiction & Film Group, even if you choose to make it a ‘group’ just for yourself.

To take one example, there are several outstanding films based on Shakespeare, ranging from ‘straight’ adaptations (like Orson Welles’s Othello),to pictures that are more experimental (including My Own Private Idaho, based on the Henry V plays, and even an avant-garde version of Shakespeare’s sonnets, The Angelic Conversation), to out there riffs (such as a favorite ’50s science fiction movie, Forbidden Planet, based on The Tempest).

Before the web, stacks of physical research book

One of the wonders of reading, or watching film, today, is the wealth of online resources, instantly available and usually free. Again, do a search on whatever work you’re interested in… knowing that, just a few years ago, you might’ve found yourself surrounded by a veritable mountain of research books. Books that, if you wanted to quote them, you’d have to scan, or type out, passages!

Not to mention that back in paper days, before ebooks, you couldn’t press on an unfamiliar word and have the definition pop up. Although I do still love having a physical copy of the vast all-encompassing Oxford English Dictionary!

Maybe the most important thing to do, when approaching a (supposedly) difficult work, is simply relax. Tell yourself the truth, that you *can* understand the book or film you’re interested in, even if it takes – as it does me – more than one reading. And maybe a lot of time.

Obviously, you don’t have to finish the book or film (unless it’s “homework”). But if you do, and you keep yourself opens to its unique language and insights, maybe you’ll be glad you did. Maybe even in some surprising ways, that go with you through life. Thanks to you, books and films do have a life of their own.


It may be easy to get a little carried away with this suggestion! Having said that, consider looking at what else was going on, from the time the book or film was created: history, similar books or movies, maybe also music, visual arts, science. Basically, whatever related areas you’re interested in.


You might also like exploring the book or film along with others, in a discussion group, that you can join, or even start yourself.

Perhaps you’d prefer sharing your comments for a book at Goodreads, or at another readers forum. Or find one for film, or on any topic you’re interested in.

However you approach a challenging book, or film, or any subject…

Relax, take as long as you want, and…


When you’re done, give yourself props. YOU DID IT!

And if you want more… Free Online Courses

If you want to go even further, there are hundreds of FREE online courses, from some of the world’s top universities, open to everyone who’s interested.