Hey, what’s that book you’re not reading?

bookfreshpressIn 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?


33 thoughts on “Hey, what’s that book you’re not reading?

  1. NDE says:

    “There was a time, children, when you couldn’t ride the 1/9 without seeing…”

    “What’s the 1/9?”

    (Wikipedia reports that “The last 9 train ran on May 27, 2005 and the 1 now makes all stops on the IRT Broadway – Seventh Avenue Line.”)

    Meanwhile, I see that one of the online comments on your article already suggests _Ulysses_, which must be to _Infinite Jest_ as the 15 puzzle is to Rubik’s Cube (as a matter of cultural signifier, not mathematical complexity); how does Joyce’s book stack up?

  2. JSE says:

    Yes, that was an self-consciously “I love the 90s” subway reference! I’ll compute Ulysses after dinner.

  3. >can you find a book other than The Goldfinch whose index is greater than 50%?

    Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s stone at 90%, beat that. Of course everybody finished that book. And don’t go NYT on me and tell me that “children’s books” don’t count.

  4. Patricia Hersh says:

    A Tale of Two Cities appears to have a high variance (two quotes from the very start and one quote from the very end) amongst the 5 quotes. But perhaps that is common?

  5. Rob H. says:

    I bring to you Sarah Vowell’s “Assassination Vacation” (http://www.amazon.com/Assassination-Vacation-Sarah-Vowell-ebook/dp/B000FCK300). A nonfiction book whose PI I’ve computed to be 56.8%! What do I win?!

  6. Richard Séguin says:

    There is a Kindle version of the Modern Library translation of Les Misérables, translated by Julie Rose. This is a completely unabridged translation, it’s massive at around 1335 fairly dense hardcover pages (including endnotes), isn’t a breezy read, and I wonder how this fares with your metric. I would check it myself but I don’t know how. It probably doesn’t help that I don’t have a Kindle.

    If the highlight feature is what I think it is, I would have found it handy while reading all six of his important novels, since I loathe marking up a real book, and there were many passages that I found quotable that I did not stop to write down and which I now can’t locate within thousands of pages.

    Is it possible that some or even many readers begin marking stuff but then either get tired of doing it or become so engrossed in the text and swept away that they just forget to do it?

  7. Richard Séguin says:

    According to the file sizes listed by Amazon, the file size of the Kindle edition of Les Misérables is 1.45x the size of that of Infinite Jest.

    BTW, I have not viewed the recent movie version of Les Misérables because I don’t see it possible to abridge and squeeze this enormous and complex work into a movie length story without seriously distorting its meaning, and possibly distorting its meaning beyond recognition. And Les Misérables is even better understood in the context of his other novels.

    Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is a work that is probably rarely finished by readers. Most probably never get beyond Swan’s Way, and few finish it (except, among others, my sister and Tim Gowers). It’s on my list.

  8. Shecky R says:

    Interesting that you mention David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”… coincidentally, I just surmised in a post yesterday that his non-fiction work, “Everything and More” (on infinity), probably falls into this category of books likely never finished by most who started it.

  9. Tom Church says:

    If you really want a book “never finished by most who started it”, isn’t The Pale King a better candidate than Infinite Jest? ;)

  10. Gerhard Tiefenbacher says:

    How about “Mein Kampf”?

  11. […] Read more on Prof Ellenberg's blog. […]

  12. tunsch says:

    People highlight fiction? Harry Potter? I don’t get it … can you help me out?

  13. […] Sources: The summer’s most unread book is…, Hey, what’s that book you’re not reading?. […]

  14. Richard Séguin says:

    Another “book” that’s a good candidate for “never finished” is the unabridged version of Frazer’s The Golden Bough. The entire work has typically been printed in 12 or 13 volumes. I once found an antique set in good condition occupying a shelf in Paul’s bookstore on State St and was tempted to buy it, but realized that at the time I would never finish reading it. Cambridge Library Collection has a 12 volume set of paperbacks for over $400. There are no kindle versions of the whole work, but there are *extremely* abridged versions under 1000 print pages available on Kindle.

  15. Daniel Kressner says:

    How about Robert Musil: “The man without qualities” ?

  16. […] My friend, Jillian Heise, calls these unfinished (but not abandoned) books “pause books.” Books readers won’t abandon, but won’t finish. I imagine most of us have hit pause on a book. It’s such a common occurrence, that scientists have developed an index for identifying the most common unfinished books. […]

  17. Tom Leinster says:

    You get a link right at the end of an article in the Observer today. Begins with David Bowie, ends with Jordan Ellenberg.

  18. Sabrina Lobo says:

    Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  19. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed.

  20. candidkay says:

    David Foster Wallace is hard to get through! I’m a word nerd and I have to have the dictionary handy:). And, he’s wordy. Oh so wordy.

  21. franhunne4u says:

    What about “in Search of Lost Time”?

  22. walt walker says:

    When I was in college, it was the case that, without exception, there were more highlights in the first half of textbooks than in the second half.

    As someone who never was a highlighter, It always seemed to me that those who did highlight were not serious about reading to begin with, I don’t mean to sound haughty or judgemental, although I’m sure I probably do, but I got the impression that if you really wanted to read, to absorb, to learn, you just sat down and focused on the text. I felt that highlighters were lazy readers. who, in essence, were saying, “this looks like something I should come back and read later.” So it made sense to me that the highlighting petered out mid-way.

    My point is, I think highlighting tells you a pretty incomplete story. But I guess it is interesting for entertainment purposes, as you say.

  23. Mujeeb says:

    That Book You’re Not Reading?

  24. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Why buy a book if you have no intention of reading?

  25. yrapoport says:

    This is an interesting idea. I have a lot of books that I bought and didn’t read for a whole but I find that I eventually go back and give them a fair chance. I tend not to make any highlights though. Would that throw off this system?

  26. Such an interesting idea! Thanks!

  27. Reblogged this on andrewdonkor601's Blog and commented:
    Reading Saves

  28. isaakturner says:

    Funny method you came up with there. The Piketty aka Hawking index :D

  29. scylaxofcaryanda says:

    Reblogged this on Scylax of Caryanda and commented:
    Makes me wonder how much of a blog post is actually read.

  30. Mary Kendall says:

    How about Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pyncheon? I’d also second the suggestions for Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (beyond Swann’s Way). Great blog posting, and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  31. This was a very interesting read. Personally I can never not finish a book I’ve already started or even bought.

  32. lanielodia says:

    Nice observation! I may use that sometime… :) It might be more of a challenge for me to get to the end of those not read though.

  33. Travis Long says:

    Ive started reading Team of Rivals about 40 times and never made it out of the first chapter…i suck at life

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