Putting Recreational Reading to “The Flannery O’Connor Test”

Flannery O’Connor once said that she stops reading a book the moment that she “would not feel a sense of loss if she were to quit reading.” Professor Smith has mentioned that he regularly reads a twenty to thirty page story and thinks something to the effect of, “This story really begins on page eight.” For the past four years, the English majors have been living in a bubble in the sense that we do not get to decide whether we want to continue reading the work or not—if a teacher assigns a work, we’re obligated to finish it.

But what happens when you enter the realm of recreational reading? If the book isn’t interesting, should we stop reading and turn on Mad Men, or should we work our way through it, and earn our way to the meat of the novel, as if we’re eating lobster? In my personal experience, I feel that way about William Faulkner’s work. I really like the idea of William Faulkner, and I have a great interest in many of the themes, motifs, and sense of nostalgia that animates his texts. But with the exceptions of the short story A Rose for Emily and The Sound and the Fury, I haven’t particularly enjoyed the experience of reading a William Faulkner work—getting through Flags in the Dust felt more like a chore to me than an exhilarating reading experience. Yet, once I was done with the work, I was glad that I read it.

I was willing to slog through Flags in the Dust because I was aware of Faulkner’s reputation and I had a good idea of the subject matter at hand before I even read it. But what happens when we’re dealing with no-named authors writing on topics we’re not familiar with? At that point, it’s like picking a piece in the box of chocolates, but some of the options…aren’t chocolate.

If you’re fifty pages into a novel that’s yet to impress you, what do you do? Do you work your way through it, hoping to find the nugget that makes the experience worthwhile, or do you adopt the “life’s too short mentality” and simply give up on it? My attitude on the matter is this: if the author has a well-earned reputation for quality, I’m going to be charitable and give the book a couple chances to capture my interest. But if I’m doing the equivalent of perusing a book on the rack at a bookstore by some Johnny Come Lately, then I’m much more inclined to move on to the next option, as if I’m cable surfing on the television.

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