Picking up a book is gratifying: look at me, not reading dumb listicles on the internet! Finishing a book, however, is a challenge. Which of this summer’s top-selling books have the highest reader attrition? Dr. Jordan Ellenberg has a semi-scientific way to find out, using buyer-generated info from Amazon to identify this year’s most unread book.
It’s a charmingly simple (if not entirely rigorous) method: Dr. Ellenberg cruises the “Popular Highlights” listings for each title, which shows the five passages most frequently highlighted by Kindle readers. If most folks make it to the very last page, those passages should come from the front, the back, and everywhere in between. If everyone drops off in Chapter 3, the most popular passages will be focused in the first few pages.
Should you finish every book you start?
…But this funny business of the Hawking Index, a lighthearted attempt to work out how far people persist in reading books, as indicated by the passages they highlight on their Kindles, has got me thinking. And it’s made me realise that my view has changed. I used to believe that if you really weren’t enjoying a book, you should toss it to one side and move on to something you might find more rewarding; essentially, it was born of an insurmountable fear of the sheer number of books I wouldn’t get round to reading before I died.
But things have changed. Clearly, I’ve got older and realised that I was a fool to see world literature as a mountain I had to scale, but more to the point, I’ve seen the threat that endless distractions and a wussy, don’t-like-it, bring-me-another attitude poses to our reading culture. I know I risk sounding po-faced, but the best books are a medium of thick description, painstakingly built word by word to produce strange and unexpected effects in the brain and heart; they deserve more than being treated like a passing bit of entertainment that hasn’t quite lived up to the reader’s exacting standards.