Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Summer's Most Unread Book Is…

Jordan Ellenberg writes at WSJ:
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.

Here's how some current best sellers and classics weigh in, from highest HI to lowest:

The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
">The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt : 98.5%
This seems like exactly the kind of long, impressive literary novel that people would carry around ostentatiously for a while and never finish. But it's just the opposite. All five top highlights come from the final 20 pages, where the narrative falls away and Ms. Tartt spells out her themes in a cascade of ringing, straight-out assertions.

Catching Fire (The Second Book of the Hunger Games)
by Suzanne Collins : 43.4%
Another novel that gets read all the way through. "Because sometimes things happen to people and they're not equipped to deal with them" is the most highlighted sentence in the seven-year history of Kindle, marked by 28,703 readers. Romantic heat in the late going also helps to produce a high score.

The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald : 28.3%
Like "Catching Fire," a love triangle set against a dystopian America deformed by vast inequalities of wealth and power. The most popular highlight isn't the boats against the current or the green light on the dock. In a nice piece of literary crowdsourcing, it's Nick Carraway's line, "Every one suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known." It's the axis around which the novel spins.

Fifty Shades of Grey: Book One of the Fifty Shades Trilogy
by E.L. James: 25.9%
Perhaps surprisingly, the top highlights here are family-friendly. You should apologize to the people you thought were reading this as pure smut, because they actually were just noting the names of the characters' favorite operas and marking, for further study, slogans like "The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership."

Flash Boys (A Wall Street Revolt)
by Michael Lewis : 21.7%
Mr. Lewis's latest trip through the sewers of financial innovation reads like a novel and gets highlighted like one, too. It takes the crown in my sampling of nonfiction books.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead
by Sheryl Sandberg : 12.3%
The top highlight in this no-nonsense self-help book—"The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don't have any"—is a sentence that Ms. Sandberg didn't even write: She attributes it to Alice Walker. Delegating and outsourcing are the keys to success for today's busy professional!

Thinking, Fast and Slow
by Daniel Kahneman : 6.8%
Apparently the reading was more slow than fast. To be fair, Prof. Kahneman's book, the summation of a life's work at the forefront of cognitive psychology, is more than twice as long as "Lean In," so his score probably represents just as much total reading as Ms. Sandberg's does.

A Brief History of Time
" by Stephen Hawking: 6.6%
The original avatar backs up its reputation pretty well. But it's outpaced by one more recent entrant—which brings us to our champion, the most unread book of this year (and perhaps any other). Ladies and gentlemen, I present:

Capital in the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas Piketty : 2.4%
Yes, it came out just three months ago. But the contest isn't even close. Mr. Piketty's book is almost 700 pages long, and the last of the top five popular highlights appears on page 26. Stephen Hawking is off the hook; from now on, this measure should be known as the Piketty Index.


  1. Piketty's score:
    Lefties burnishing their socialist cred, while typically failing to think things through.

  2. That's fantastic. The only people actually reading pikettys book are those who've demolished it already, and their reviews are just as ignored.

    The funny thing about Michael Lewis's book is that it was touted by the liberal media as a condemnation of capitalism, when really, if you actually read it, it's pretty libertarian. He points out that the very existence of HFT is only possible because of regulations put in after the S&L crisis, and notes other regulations that caused said crisis. He also points out how slow and crooked the regulators themselves are. In the end, a group of people in the market figure out a way to stifle the HFTs, no government needed.