Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Reading (and not reading) Highlights

The WSJ has a piece this morning on the best sellers that people do, and don't, read. The methodology is kind of clever. Those reading on a Kindle or the Kindle app have the ability to highlight passages of interest. Amazon keeps statistics on which passages are most highlighted. The author of the piece uses the distribution of these most highlighted passages to track whether people appear to be reading the whole book:
It's beach time, and you've probably already scanned a hundred lists of summer reads. Sadly overlooked is that other crucial literary category: the summer non-read, the book that you pick up, all full of ambition, at the beginning of June and put away, the bookmark now and forever halfway through chapter 1, on Labor Day. The classic of this genre is Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time," widely called "the most unread book of all time."

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!)
He then runs down some of this year's hot sellers and looks at how much of them buyers appear to be reading.
"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" 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.
"Fifty Shades of Grey" 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."
"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.
Of course, the wildcard here is the question of what people actually use highlights for. I'm probably not the best person on this, as I've only read a half dozen books on Kindle, and those only because I couldn't get them practically in hard copy. Since a lot of my recent reading is novel research, I've been doing a lot of "highlighting" if you will, but this involves sticking little color coded Post Its into my books and perhaps putting a note on the Post It as to why I want to recall that passage. In addition to the fact that I just like physical books (and a lot of what I'm using for research isn't available on Kindle) I find it a lot easier to use a physical book for reference when writing on the computer. Somehow flipping back and forth between screens/apps seems a lot less productive.

In more general reading, I think that highlights will tend to be passages that the reader wants to reference or quote later, so it's probably not a surprise that in Shades of Grey the highlights are literary references and self help slogans. It's not necessarily that these are what people were reading the book for, but rather that that these are the pieces the reader is most likely want to refer to for some other purpose later. Indeed, skimming down the list of most highlighted passages of all time, it strikes me that pithy general statements get a fair amount of the attention.

It also strikes me that these draw from a small and unrepresentative section of readers. The most highlighted passages are still only highlighted by a few thousand readers, and apparently readers of the Hunger Games trilogy have an extreme propensity to highlight. (Personally, I read the first and by the time the second came in at the library I realized I really didn't care and so returned it without starting it.)

For the record, my unfinished book for the year (all others I've finished or am still making active progress through) was Ken Follet's historical novel Fall of Giants. I read about 500 pages out of 1200 and realized the only reason I was continuing was so that I wouldn't have to mark it as unfinished. Once I realized that, the check box ceased to be worth it. Flat characters and bad prose.

While I seldom choose to leave a book unfinished, some sit in my "reading" pile for years without being finished. The big ones I can think of in this regard at Tackary's Vanity Fair, which I've been 50 pages from the end on for at least six years, and Stripping of the Altars which I got ~200 pages into while on a liturgical history kick and still keep meaning to get back to.

1 comment:

Jamie said...

Oh, I LOVE the end of Vanity Fair -- just love it.