I was one of those honor roll high school students who read every book assigned in English class. Recommend a good book to me, and I’m all over it! I fondly recall reading classics like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence, and The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. When we discussed novels in class, I participated fully in discussing characters, plot, setting, symbolism, and lessons from the story.
Except for the two novels when I didn’t.
My sister and I were once discussing our respective high school experiences. Her attitude had been a bit different from mine. It went something like, “Why read the book when Cliff already did it for you?” Or better yet, “Why attend English class when instead, I can write a please-excuse-from-class note and forge the signature, and leave campus to go eat chicken fried steak with my friends?” (That last one is an actual quote.)
I couldn’t fathom not following the reading list for an English class, much less skipping. I asked if my sister’s teachers knew that she hadn’t read the books, and she said, “Of course not.” So then I told her about the two novels that I didn’t read in high school. In fact, refused to read! And my teachers knew it.
Now I have a rule that I will read at least 50 pages of any novel before throwing it aside as not my cup of tea. And I did read 50 pages of The Last of the Mohicans, which was a good-sized chunk of the book. When I admitted in class that it was not capturing my attention, my English teacher said, “Well, the first fifty pages aren’t good, but the book gets much better after that.”
What?!! Hadn’t she spent hours trying to teach us to hook our reader in the first line of a five-paragraph theme? If James Fenimore Cooper gets to deliver hooey for 50 pages of his book, my teacher should only grade the last four of my five paragraphs! Or allow me three pages of worthless writing in my twenty-page research paper! Somehow, it didn’t work that way.
I read a few more pages, deliberated the lack of fairness in making otherwise cooperative students read a less-than-marvelous novel, and decided to protest. I informed my teacher that I was done reading The Last of the Mohicans – 50+ pages in. She couldn’t make me, and she knew that I had read everything else, so she let it go. I listened carefully in class and made an A on the exam. I have never felt the need to finish Cooper’s tome.
Then there was The Iliad. I have wondered whether certain literature has remained on reading lists merely due to the tenacity of an ancient manuscript. Homer’s works are grueling for me. I trudged through The Odyssey in my freshman year, but when I was told to crack open The Iliad as a sophomore, I made it halfway through. What I recall was Homer introducing a new character every few pages and then explaining in detail how he was killed in the battle. Really? Did I need to know that? I could be reading J.R.R. Tolkien or a Brontë sister instead! So I stopped. And informed my teacher.
I got my Cliffs Notes (absolutely the way to get through Homer in my opinion), listened in class, got tips from friends, and flew through the test. I think we also had to write an essay on some portion of the novel, and as you might suspect, I analyzed the first part which I had read and ignored the remainder.
Now that I’ve made my way through all the formal schooling I intend to receive and my reading time is entirely my own, I have tossed aside more books than I can count which didn’t capture my attention in those crucial first 50 pages. Hey, if you can’t get to the Tootsie Roll center of a novel in 50 pages, it’s time to tear those pages apart with your teeth!
I think my 50-page rule is pretty generous. I know friends who hurl novels to the sea if the first page doesn’t grab them.
So what are your criteria for continuing to read or quitting a novel? Do you have a set number of pages or chapters that you try? Do you continue to read long past when you probably should have quit? Do you recall which books you didn’t complete?