In the Wall Street Journal this weekend I define a new metric aimed at identifying books people are buying but not reading.
How can we find today’s greatest non-reads? Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book’s Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.
Thus, the Hawking Index (HI): Take the page numbers of a book’s five top highlights, average them, and divide by the number of pages in the whole book. The higher the number, the more of the book we’re guessing most people are likely to have read. (Disclaimer: This is not remotely scientific and is for entertainment purposes only!)
At the end I suggest we call this number the Piketty Index instead, because Piketty’s unlikely megahit Capital in the Twenty-First Century comes in with an index of 2.4%, the lowest in my sample.
But it’s not the winner anymore! Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices scores an amazing 1.9%. But somehow I feel like HRC’s book is in a different category entirely; unlike Piketty, I’m not sure I believe it’s a book people even pretend to intend to read.
The piece got lots of press, including a nice writeup at Gizmodo today. So I thought I’d add a few more comments here, to go past what I could do in an 800-word story.
- Lots of people asked: what about Infinite Jest? In fact, that book was in the original piece but got cut for length. Here’s the paragraph:
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. HI 6.4%. There was a time, children, when you couldn’t ride the 1/9 without seeing a dozen recent graduates straining under the weight of Wallace’s big shambling masterpiece. Apparently it was too heavy for most. Yes, I included the endnotes in the page count. This is another one whose most famous line – “I am in here” – doesn’t crack the Kindle top five.
- Other books I computed that didn’t make it into the WSJ: Stephen King’s new novel Mr. Mercedes scores 22.5%. How To Win Friends and Influence People gets 8.8%. And How Not To Be Wrong comes in at 7.7%. In fact, the original idea for the piece came from my dismay that all the popular highlights in my book were from the first three chapters. But actually that puts How Not To Be Wrong in the middle of the nonfiction pack!
- Important: I highly doubt the Piketty Index of the book is actually a good estimate for the median proportion completed. And I think different categories of books can’t be directly compared. All nonfiction books scored lower than all novels (except Infinite Jest!) I don’t think that’s because nobody finishes nonfiction; I think it’s because nonfiction books usually have introductions, which contain lots of direct assertions and thesis statements, exactly the kind of thing Kindle readers seem to like highlighting.
- Challenges: can you find a book other than The Goldfinch whose index is greater than 50%? Can you find a nonfiction book which beats 20%? Can you find a book of any kind that scores lower than Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices?