I’ve been reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo for several weeks now, but I’ve only managed to got 107 pages into the book. The characters really interesting, I love the musical, and it’s a book I’ve always wanted to read…but I’m struggling to read even 20 pages a night. Going forward (I’m determined to enjoy this book!), these are my tricks for reading a book I’m struggling to finish.

Research the time period to provide context

A large part of my struggle with Les Mis is that I know next to nothing about French history, especially the time period when the story takes place. So when large sections of the book are devoted to giving historical context, I tend to stop reading because I just don’t understand who all these people are and what they are doing.

But not understanding the historical or social context of the book is easy to fix–read a book or do some Google searches about it! I have several books about Napoleon and the French revolution, and there are many great online teaching resources I can access. While I won’t know every single thing the characters talk about, I’ll understand enough. You can do this with most any time period, and while it’s not fun to put down your main book for a day or two, it’s essential to research if you’re getting frustrated.

Find someone who can answer your questions

Despite researching French history, I still have some questions. History books are great at explaining WHAT happened, but they never get as deeply into the WHY as I would like. But my boyfriend and his father have both read Les Mis and are huge history buffs, so they can answer my constant “But WHY are they doing that, I don’t get it?!” questions.

Find someone who has read the book before, or who knows the time period. This person can help ground fictional characters in the real world context, with more emotional explanation than a text book. This person might also give you clues to what happens next–I hate when I have a theory about what’s going to happen and then it turns out I was horribly wrong. So I’ll usually pass my theories by someone who knows the book so I can stop looking for evidence I’m right.

Set a realistic timeline

My high school offered two advanced placement classes, English lit and Government and Economics. They were inconveniently at the same time, and I picked Gov and Econ because I figured I would read all the required books for the AP lit class on my free time anyway. What really happened was I never developed the skills from that class to fully understand and enjoy complicated books. I do read them on my own for fun, but I always feel like I’m missing the deeper points because I’m so focused on understanding the writing style.

When I read a book out of my comfort zone, I rarely adjust my reading style. I know I’m a fast reader with a comprehension level far above my education level, so I expect to easily read 100 or 200 pages in a sitting. With Les Mis, I need a break every chapter or two, because it’s a lot of data to process. Instead of getting frustrated with how slow my progress has been, I need to accept this book will take more time and effort than my normal books. Reading slowly and carefully isn’t a bad thing, but it can be a bit of a culture shock when you’ve read nothing but science fiction and fantasy for the last few years.

Accept you may have to reread the book

Some of my very favorite books have so much going on, it’s basically required to reread them to figure everything out. Since I’ve been reading for so long, I’ve developed a system that works for me. The first reading is about the character plot lines. The second reading focuses on the social and political context. The third reading lets me really understand the underlying moral themes.

Les Mis is a huge book (my hard back copy is over 1,000 pages). It’s going to take time to read once, let alone two or three times. But if I really want to appreciate the book, I may need to accept that fact. This reading will be to familiarize myself with the characters; next, I’ll research French history and understand the political and social context; finally, I’ll read it again to figure out what all of it means–right now all I’ve got is rich people suck.