Classics And Chronic Illness – How To Tackle Challenging Reads

Pippa stood up holding pile of books. Pippa is wearing long-sleeved navy blue dress with tiny white spots, with brown hair down. Books are all classics from Wordsworth Collector’s Editions in a rainbow spectrum of pastel colours and titles embroidered in gold. Books top to bottom are The Great Gatsby, The Secret Garden, The Wind In The Willows, Pride and prejudice, a Christmas Carol, withering heights, Jane Eyre, and black beauty.


[AD. This post is not sponsored, but links marked with * are affiliate links. This means that I earn a small commission from any purchases made through these links, at no extra cost to you. Books pictured here are some of the gorgeous Collector’s Editions series*, previously gifted from Wordsworth Editions – my collection is one of my most prized possessions. You can also find more of my favourite reads here!*]

Before we get started, let me leave my more general Tips For Reading With A Chronic Illness post here. You can also find my own published books and eBooks here and say hello on Goodreads here, and just before I hit publish I finished listening to my pal Natasha Lipman’s wonderful podcast episode that explores chronic illness, reading and pacing in more depth. Highly, highly recommend!

For anybody dealing with adversity, reading can be a lifeline.

Whether you’re craving pure escapism in narratives far away from your own or you’re seeking solidarity in stories that mirror what you’re going through, there are books out there that can give you exactly what you need, right when you need it. And I can only speak for myself here, but I truly believe my love of reading has shaped the person I’ve become.

The problem, however, is that when you’re dealing with a chronic illness, immersing yourself in the world of reading isn’t always straightforward. Brain fog and cognitive impairment can make it difficult to concentrate, issues with memory can make it trickier to follow plotlines and narratives, and even the simple act of holding a physical book open can be demanding on painful muscles and joints.

As somebody who’s contended with all of the above issues in varying levels of severity over the years, I feel really fortunate that my lifelong love of reading hasn’t been completely jeopardised by my condition. There was only a small period of time where I wasn’t reading at all, but that alone made me realise how much of a privilege this very thing can be.

I usually indulge in books within my comfort zone, mostly contemporary fiction and YA reads. However, as I’ve grown older and wanted to challenge myself more, it’s been necessary to adapt my habits accordingly… and my biggest battle to-date has been with popular classic books*.

Bar a few iconic reads, I consider myself quite a late starter when it comes to classics. I only really started testing the waters in my early twenties, but on reflection, I’m glad I waited until I was old enough to really appreciate what I was reading. It can be easy to sit yourself down and plow through these renowned works simply because you feel like you *should*, mentally ticking them off a list rather than truly experiencing the stories for what they are. However, once I learned to adapt my habits and actually appreciate these reads, I couldn’t get enough of them.

By no means am I a pro, but now that I’ve settled into some routines that allow me to enjoy classics to their fullest, I wanted to share a few tips and tricks for anybody in a similar position. If you too are a chronically ill reader who feels somewhat intimidated by those must-read classics or just more challenging reads in general, I really hope the following suggestions help you get started:

  1. Make Timely Choices

Dealing with the symptoms of chronic illness can make reading challenging. If you’re having a really rough time, I’d advise listening to your gut when choosing what you’d like to read next. There may be classics on your To Be Read pile that you were really hoping to dive into, but if your body isn’t in a very good place at the moment, the chances are that your mind won’t be either.

When I’m in this position, or even when there’s just a lot going on and life feels a little overwhelming, I tend to put the more complex books aside and pick a lighter read to tide me over instead. When things feel somewhat more settled, however much further down the line, you’ll likely feel more motivated to pick up a more challenging book in the knowledge that you’re in the right headspace to tackle it. There’s absolutely no shame in having that book (or five, if you’re anything like me), sitting and waiting for you until you’re ready.

In a similar vein, I’d also recommend staggering your classics and spacing them out over time. If you’ve just finished one classic, line up an easier or lighter book for after, instead of jumping straight into the next hefty read. Keeping some variety in what you’re consuming not only allows you to appreciate the individuality of what you’re reading, it can give your body and brain a bit of respite as well.

  1. Don’t Force It

So you’ve bided your time, finally picked up that book, and settled in to begin the opening chapter… only to find that you’re just not feeling it. On the one hand, it might take you a little time to get immersed in that particular story, and sticking it out for another chapter or two will pay off. However, if you’re really not on board with the book in your hands, there’s absolutely no need to force yourself and persevere just because you’ve made the effort to start. Your time and energy is so valuable and there are so many incredible books in the universe waiting for you to explore, so there’s no need to feel ashamed of not finishing this particular one. Note to self, future Pippa.

You might may immediately realise that the book in question just isn’t for you and not one that you’re likely ever to enjoy, but it could well be that it calls to you in the future instead. There have been a fair few books over the years where I’ve jumped ship pretty early on and passed them on to others or donated them with no qualms, but there are others currently sitting on my bookshelf which I didn’t complete on first attempt, but may well come back to further down the line. It took me three separate attempts over a couple of years to really get stuck into The Colour Purple by Alice Walker*, but that book is a prime example of perseverance paying off. You might not be ready for this book of your own that you’re facing right now, but your future self could thank you for waiting.

  1. Pace Yourself

If you’re a seasoned reader, the chances are that consuming your favourite books is like breathing to you: something that comes naturally and without much conscious thought. You might be somebody who blitzes through pages and pages of text, almost subconsciously absorbing the information in front of you and approaching the final chapter in no time at all.

It took me quite a while to figure out that this same approach just doesn’t really work with classics or more complex literary reads. The quality of writing is designed to make you stop and think, giving you cause to reflect on select paragraphs, phrases, or words. Really getting the most out of the author’s writing style requires you to take your time and cognitively process the text you’re consuming, rather than being keen to storm ahead and devour the entire plot at the speed of lightning.

I used to get frustrated at how long it took me to read classics, particularly given that many of them are hefty books to begin with. There were many occasions where I was ready to chuck Gone With The Wind* straight out the window… and probably would have done so had I not been concerned that that absolute brick of a book knocking out an innocent passer-by in the process.

I was used to bulldozing through reads within my comfort zone and ticking off around half a dozen a month, and it’s taken time and practice to train myself out of that mindset when it comes to more complex reads. Now though, I’ve learned to enjoy the process: setting time aside, perhaps making myself a hot drink, and mindfully approaching the story in the way the author likely would have wanted you to. Quite honestly, doing so has radically changed my relationship with books and reading as well.

  1. Consider Making Notes

Now this one won’t be everybody’s cup of tea, but hear me out. Many classics are set within specific cultural contexts, and the author may have made assumptions about what the reader will already innately know before they begin the book. In these cases, taking even a little bit of time to familiarise yourself with these contextual elements of the story and immersing yourself in these worlds can make the reading process all the more enjoyable, and writing things down might help you more easily internalise them… especially if you happen to live with the joys of brain fog and cognitive symptoms as well.

Similarly, if your book involves extensive numbers of characters or complex relationships, having a pen and paper to hand to help you keep track of what’s what and who’s who can also be a gamechanger. Whilst it’s not (yet!) a classic, last year I read the acclaimed The Overstory by Robert Powers*: an incredible book intertwining the lives of seven distinct individuals with backstories, a handful of whom also had second ‘names’ or identities. The paths of these individuals increasingly begin to overlap as the story unfolds, and if I hadn’t taken the time to get these core elements straight in my head at the beginning, I would have been completely lost. Fortunately, using a little time and energy to be proactive in the first instance meant that I could fully appreciate the book and the sheer literary genius behind it. That book is seriously one of the greatest I’ve ever read.

  1. Seek Recommendations From Others

Finally, it’s always worth keeping your eyes and ears open to see what books other people are enjoying. It can be difficult to know where to start with the classics, particularly when you’re chronically ill, so finding out what others are reading can be really helpful and inspire your own choices. Social media and websites like Goodreads mean that it’s never been easier to access people’s unbiased thoughts and opinions on what they’re reading. And since you asked, you can find me on Goodreads here and see my own list of my all-time favourite classics here*. I frequently share bite-size thoughts and opinions on what I’m reading over on Instagram, too. Plug plug plug, nothing to see here.

I’d also highly recommend checking out other chronically ill readers: Beth ElizabethLouise’s Little LifeMindfully EvieAmy Living With ME, and Bookish Spoonie are among some of my favourites. Doing so might even motivate you to share book reviews of your own: even if blogging or social media-ing feels overwhelming or too demanding, I’ve found that signing up to Goodreads offers an easy and energy-efficient way of documenting your thoughts and engaging with others.


I really hope these tips come in useful! Diving into the world of classics can feel daunting, even for non-chronically ill people, but trust me when I say it’s worth taking the plunge. Put in the time and energy, and you will reap the rewards. I’m debating sharing my own classics recommendations* in more depth in a future post, so do let me know if you would find that helpful. And if you have any of your own tips or tricks to share, I’d love to hear them!

[This post is not sponsored, but links marked with * are affiliate links. This means that I earn a small commission from any purchases made through these links, at no extra cost to you. Books pictured here are some of the gorgeous Collector’s Editions series*, previously gifted from Wordsworth Editions – my collection is one of my most prized possessions. You can also find more of my favourite reads here!*]

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3 Responses

  1. I love reading. I was a reading teacher who promoted the love of reading to my students by having 2,000 + books for them to chose from in my classroom library. I only ever read paper books. However, since becoming sick (Fibromyalgia), I’ve struggled with focusing on print, holding the book, and overall concentration. Audio books has helped. I’m starting to be able to read print again, but so much more slowly. I love that you share about books, Pippa! I’ll be checking out more of your posts:)

  2. I’d definitely say audiobooks help, too. I have a massive pile of 50+ books (most of them non-fiction and complicated) I really want to read but my body just doesn’t cooperate. Meanwhile I’ve apparently waded my way through about 100 audiobooks since 2016, including Tolstoy’s War and Peace which is about 80hrs long!

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