I have a rule. Some may think it a silly rule, but it’s my rule.
If I’m not hooked by a book by page fifty, I abandon the book. I move on.
Maybe, if it’s a really long book, I may stretch it out to page 100. Maybe, if it’s a book that comes highly recommended, I’ll give it more of a chance.
Many books have suffered this fate.
Dracula suffered this fate, though it lost me much further in the first time I read it, about the time that the plot shifted to Whitby.
A Game of Thrones suffered this fate, and it really was about page fifty where I said, “What the hell is this?” and put it down for two years.
Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander was exactly like this, though I think it was page 75 where I kicked out because that was where the first chapter ended.
In all of these cases, I’ve gone back and restarted the books. And I’ve finished them.
Not every book I kick out of is so lucky.
In the mid-90s, many a Star Wars and Star Trek novel suffered the “page fifty” rule. Especially Star Wars. I’ve never felt a compelling need to go back and revisit the unfinished books.
Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels have curiously suffered from the page fifty rule. Some of the novels in the series I’ve never finished, partly because I already know the story by and large thanks to the Sean Bean movies, and so I don’t feel that I’m actually missing anything by skipping to the next book in the series.
Some of Hemingway’s work I’ve never finished. (Across the River and Into the Trees, I’m looking at you.)
Why the “page fifty” rule?
It’s pretty basic — there’s a lot of books out there, there’s a lot of books out there I want to read or should read, and if the book doesn’t have a hold on me by a reasonable point, chances are it will never have a hold on me.
The prime example of this for me is P.D. James’ The Children of Men.
I struggled with the book. I bought the DVD (which, curiously, I have yet to watch), I picked up the book for very cheap, and for a week Children of Men was my commute reading.
It was well-written. It was poetic. The world it created was even interesting.
And I never, ever cared.
When I reached the end of the first half, I put the book down and I never looked back.
I admit, I do wonder what it is about British society that lends itself to authoritarian/fascistic republican dystopias like Children of Men and V for Vendetta, but I’ll ill-equipped to even hazard a guess.
I never felt compelled by the book.
And, really, that’s the reason for the “page fifty” rule. If you’re not hooked, it’s not going to get better.
It’s just not.