When I was a teenager I loved to read books about Taoism and Zen, but they were popular books, not original texts. When I was in college a professor chided me for reading popular books on these subjects and urged me to read the original texts. So I began to read the Tao Te Ching, Chuang Tzu, the Sun Tzu, the Unfettered Mind, etc. (I was a serious student of gung fu, hence some of the martial texts). I couldn’t understand much of what I read, but I couldn’t dismiss them – they’d been venerated for so long that I felt they must contain some really valuable wisdom. I began to see them like a puzzle to figure out. Reading commentaries on them was helpful, as it gave me a handle on the concepts being used in the texts.
Whatever little I understood from each text, I would try to apply in real life. Every year or two I would re-read a particular text and would find that I understood a little more than I did the last time. Gradually, the meanings became clearer and more profound. I would later use this same approach with the suttas too.
I began to read the suttas because I felt I’d had enough of reading later traditions’ interpretations of what the Buddha taught and wanted to get as close as I could to the source itself. Because of my past history working with these other texts, I wasn’t daunted by the way the suttas were written. I couldn’t understand a lot of what they said, not knowing a lot of the terminology and concepts (like aggregates, sense bases, cessation, etc.), but I approached it like a puzzle to figure out. Each time I came across something unfamiliar, I would research it until I had a basic grasp of the concept or term.
One thing I noticed when I began to read the suttas, something that I didn’t experience with the other texts I mentioned, is that, even if I didn’t understand a sutta, my mind felt calm, clear, and peaceful afterward. This wasn’t from faith, as I didn’t have any at that time. I hadn’t even started practicing yet.
One little off-topic side note in case some might find it useful: Venerable Anālayo once recommended that when I read a sutta, I read it out loud. I tried it and have been surprised by how much more depth and texture it adds to the experience of reading a sutta. It helps me notice subtle nuances that I may otherwise have missed. I have to admit that I sometimes even adopt different voices for each speaker, as if I’m telling a story.