Maybe there’s a part of you that knows within a paragraph (or, worse, a sentence); perhaps it takes 50 pages, or a 100, before you start to ask yourself the question: is this a book that I should abandon?
My own philosophy on this has changed. Wild and I used to be the same: I would stubbornly plod through every book I started, refusing, except in the rarest of circumstances, to abandon anything. Although I was stymied by Gravity’s Rainbow the first time, the second I made it through considerably more quickly than I would have guessed. The only books I gave up on were a couple early, critically-regarded novels by very prominent authors that both stank of overwriting and pretentiousness. (I will leave them anonymous; I quite enjoy the other novels of one of the authors, but his first book was not good.) One of those books, which was made into a rather successful movie, I had even flung across the room in frustration.
But now I am more quick to abandon books—at least those I am not reviewing. My sense of what I like has developed, and my patience has worn thin. I am more aware of international authors, excellent nonfiction, and classic poetry that I have missed and would rather read. I also tolerate pretension and “performance” writing less easily. Perhaps this attitude is also a product of growing older, or else having a great bulk of the books I read be read “professionally”—I am using that term very loosely here—so that in my “personal” reading time, I am more selective.
But I would caution anyone from giving up on a book too early. One recent novel I’ve read, which has to be one of the best I’ve encountered in the last five years, had—at least it seemed to me initially—a wordy, poor opening. The 75-100 page area usually seems to be about the best place, although I’d make it a bit more flexible and say one should read about 25% of a book before giving up; the lengthy endeavors (such as, ahem, Infinite Jest, another book commonly abandoned) deserve more time.