|Hard to believe I couldn't find an appropriate image on the web, but I had to draw this (badly) myself...|
There was quite a long period in my life where I finished books no matter what. (Though there were a few books that I was supposed to read in undergrad that I simply couldn't get to and never started... Seriously, one semester I was taking 4 English lit courses and had to read 4-5 novels a week with response papers and everything. Way too much and something had to give.) Despite the cartoon above, I did read Moby Dick all the way through (just for fun) and even Spenser's Faerie Queene (one of the top 10 boringest books in the world according to Jasper Fforde -- though this I probably would not have finished if I hadn't been reading it for a course).
I still tend to try to finish books, though in the case of non-fiction that is not grabbing me, I am a lot more inclined to skim than I used to be. I currently have 50 pages more to go in Hubert Damisch's Skyline: The Narcissistic City and am not liking it at all. This is one that I am pretty tempted to just abandon. Non-fiction books that are written in obscurant language (unfortunately a lot of cultural studies fall into this category) now generally get the boot from me.
In the realm of fiction, I am certainly more willing to abandon novels, particularly when I don't feel the authors are "playing fair." I don't have to necessarily like all the characters in a book (though I probably need to like one or two to have any investment at all), but mostly I don't want the plot to be advanced by totally random incidents or really implausible coincidences. This is why I ultimately stopped reading The Sea Captain's Wife and perhaps wouldn't have even started Eliot's The Mill on the Floss had I known the ending. I really hate books where people who seem reasonably intelligent or at least reasonable suddenly start acting stupid. Othello is just this side of the line (but at least we have some indications where his self-doubt (that his wife could love him for himself) combined with Iago's treachery lead him astray). Of course, most sitcoms require that people act foolishly for 20 minutes so that things can be explained/resolved in the last 5 minutes. On the other hand, I don't watch much TV -- largely for that reason. TV/book characters that are at least consistently foolish are acceptable (if a bit wearing), so Arrested Development, for example, doesn't exactly violate my rules. It also does a much better job of leading into implausible situations organically (and they build across episodes, which is a plus).
Anyway, I would say I first I categorize books into two piles -- those that are classics that I want to read no matter what and those that are more discardable (literally in the overflow boxes in the basement). It would take a lot for me to abandon a book in the first category. The last time I did that I can remember was Mosley's Hopeful Monsters.* I tried to read this book three times but finally gave up. I think the single biggest flaw for me was that both of the (alternating) narrators sounded almost identical. They both had this amazing ability to recall not only what they said, but what they meant to say, from 20 or even 30 years in their past. It was such a stupid and annoying convention (like a verbal tic but written out). I basically decided that, despite the backdrop of important things going on such as the development of nuclear bombs and Western European history being decided and what have you, Mosley was actually a pretty crap writer who certainly hadn't learned his craft.
With the more disposable books, I try to decide within the first 25 or certainly 50 pages if this book has potential and is worth reading. Once I do commit to that kind of book, I usually do finish, unless I feel the author simply has tricked me or is toying with me (like Powning) and I throw down the book at that point. Perhaps the oddest abandonment for me was Jorge Amado's The War of the Saints where I simply couldn't care about any of the characters and the fact that the author kept taking us on detour after detour. I'm sure he was trying to portray this village in some sort of Felliniesque way, but I lost interest about 150 pages in and tossed the book. It just didn't seem to be getting any better and Amado was spending so much time on the more unpleasant characters (clearly to be setting them up for a fall later, but I couldn't even be fussed into sticking around to see it). I did like his earlier novels Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon and Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, but I don't feel I have the time to reread them and see how I feel about them today. I vaguely remember that they were slightly more straight-forward reads with more sympathetic characters.
I don't think I will post a list of all the books I've ever abandoned, but if I can think of any other memorable cases (or abandon more books in the future) I will mention them below.
* Actually, now that I think about it, I did abandon Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections nine or so months ago. Not because he was such a snob, but mostly because I found where he was going in the novel was so boring (dysfunctional family dynamics in suburban U.S.) and so better done before by others (John Cheever, John Updike). It's hard to pinpoint exactly when I stopped caring, but I must have been pretty frustrated, because I abandoned it in an airport lounge, knowing that I had another 3+ hour flight ahead of me. I managed to buy The Mill on the Floss as an emergency backup. Though I didn't really care for that book either, I did finish it; it was still a better investment of my time than the Franzen.
For better or worse, I find the father in Mahfouz's The Cairo Trilogy to be an unsympathetic and bullying character, but the dynamics are a bit different from The Corrections (the children have a harder time escaping his influence for one thing). Certainly the setting is more alien, which piques my curiousity. I'd say in general I consider Mahfouz to be a superior (and subtler) writer than Franzen. All of which contribute to the strong likelihood that I will complete The Cairo Trilogy when there are at least some surface simularities to other works which I have abandoned. Well, I don't have to be 100% consistent in my reading habits, and it's nobody's loss but mine if I end up giving up on a stone-cold classic.
On the trip to Chicago I ended up doing a high-level skimming of Charles Palliser's The Sensationalist, which I did not care for at all. It was a mix of the empty, cipher-like characters of Satin Island and the sexual escapades of Bukowski's Post Office (though the females are almost interchangeable here). Still, I finished it.
In contrast, I gave up on Rose Macauley's The Towers of Trebizond after 100 pages. It was supposed to be a light take on the activities of Anglican missionaries in Turkey, sort of a blend of Graham Greene and Barbara Pym, but I found it really tedious, largely because of the affectless voice of the narrator, who feels excluded from this community because she cannot in good faith take communion, since she is having an affair with a married man. Anyway, I saw that some people loved the novel, but a slightly larger group disliked it and quite a few really hated the ending, which put the narrator in a very poor light. So I jumped ahead and read the conclusion, which does seem somewhat abrupt, perhaps ripped from Bowen's To the North, where at least the ending is a bit more organic to the rest of the book. If this is indeed her best novel, I am not likely to be reading any more Macauley.