Unread Books

Jordan Ellenberg has devised an ingenious way of working out what books get bought but not read:

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.

Using this method, he finds that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch has an HI of 98.5%, whereas Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has an HI of just 2.4%, worse even than Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, widely known as the ‘most unread book of all time’.

I find the Tartt result unsurprising because when, recently, I read her first book,The Secret History I spent the first 350 pages wondering why on earth I was reading it. Not only were all the characters repulsive, but, worse, I strongly suspected the author thought they were really cool. The picture of the author did not inspire confidence that I might be wrong. And, there really seemed to be no plot and I am someone who has no compunction putting down a bad book, so the fact that despite all that I remained hooked impressed me a lot (and it was completely worth it: from around p.350 it is riveting).

But (in Jordan’s spirit of this being entertainment, not science) several comments. First, in defense of Piketty, it is a great read, not at all what I had been led to expect, so if people are giving up they are missing out. Second, though, most copies of Hawking’s book were sold prior to Kindle, and I suspect that hard copies of books, which are sometimes bought for show, are more likely to go unread than kindle copies, which are often bought in order not to show (see 50 Shades). So, Hawking, I think, is still a winner. Next, though, the problem with the method is that I suspect that the kind of people who mark passages in their kindles are unrepresentative readers (not being rude, or anything, just seems quirky). But, finally. When I was a teenager, I saw Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago on the bookshelves of just about every house I ever went to, including the houses of people whom I never saw reading even a shopping list, let alone talking about a book. I do believe there are, or at least have been, people who have read it, but I’d be amazed if it would have gotten a HI of 0.5%.

Finally, finally, I wonder about academic books? I am pretty sure my first book has been cited much more often than it has read, and I have pretty compelling evidence that two of the reviewers didn’t read it (one reviewer based his entire review on the blurb for the book; and a second attributed to me, and criticized, exactly the opposite thesis from the one that I was defending).

Anyway, other nominees for unread, or ought-to-be-unread, books, with or without evidence?

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.