I am an adult who struggles with reading. I can fully understand books up to about an eighth grade or high school level (books like Harry Potter, The Great Gatsby, writing of Hemingway, etc...) but I struggle with more complex works. I've recently tried reading Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Bertrand Russel and other philosophical pieces; I've found that I have to put the book down after a few hours of straining my eyes because I have no clue what is going on in the reading, and I don't know why that's the case. Is it that the language is so much different from modern English? Is my vocabulary too much deficient to comprehend the variety of words used in these texts? Or am I just missing a lot of context surrounding the philosophical tradition? Or a mix of those...

Does anyone have advice of how to improve my reading skills so that I can digest more difficult works than The Hobbit?

(Side Note, I remember first noticing this problem in college when I read The Last of the Mohicans and answered every question incorrectly relating to characters emotions, arguments, and etc. My lack of reading skills, shockingly, didn't prevent me from completing a math degree and working as an actuary. This is wholly due invention of video and audio which I've turned to when textbooks were incomprehensible to me).

  • Welcome to Lit! This is an interesting question. As you mention your proficiency in maths, how would you help improve a learner who couldn't do functions beyond basic arithmetic? I understand that with maths there is typically a single correct solution while with reading it is more about interpretation. All our brains approach different subjects in different ways .
    – Skooba
    Apr 15, 2020 at 15:13

1 Answer 1


Some of these (Hobbes, Smith, Russel) tend to be fairly technical in nature, so part of the complexity is the reading and part of the complexity is the ideas themselves.

That being said, it's totally normal to have to work hard to understand them. You're definitely not alone in that.

A few recommendations I have: speaking as someone who also has a math degree, in one sense, the approach to reading a philosophy book has a lot of similarities to how you read a math book. You can't necessarily "read it straight through" like you would with a novel - you have to study each part to make sure you follow their thought process and where they got their ideas from.

As is the case in math, many people tend to "gloss over" the parts of the book that they don't understand. However, it's important to make sure you understand these parts.

Obviously, make sure that you understand all of the terms used. (In case that sounds obvious, I've seen a lot of people skip that entirely when they read - when they encounter an unfamiliar word, they just gloss over it rather than looking up what the word means).

Side note: if you're reading on a Kindle or other similar device, you can select the word and it'll give you a popup with the definition and a link to the Wikipedia article (if there is one).

When you encounter some new concept, try to read it and then explain it to yourself afterwards. If you were teaching someone else, how would you explain it to them? For example, when I read Shakespeare, whenever I finish a scene I try to summarize to myself what happened in that scene.

If you're into programming, you can also acquire a rubber duck for this purpose. If the duck isn't convinced by your explanation, this is probably where your confusion lies.

One final point: it sounds odd, but it can also be helpful to read a summary in advance.

It can also be helpful to write down some questions before even starting the book or chapter and then try to answer them.

While this initially somewhat slower way to read, in my experience for really complicated material like mathematics, philosophy, and economics this is actually the most efficient way to learn.

Finally, I strongly recommend reading about the difference between the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. The idea behind that is that, if you believe that your abilities are basically fixed (either you're a good reader or you aren't and there's not much you can do about it), you end up setting yourself up to fail. On the other hand, if you believe that you can improve, you're much more likely to be able to succeed.

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