Until now we only had anecdotal evidence that many “blockbuster” books pushed by media and reviewers went largely unread (the most famous past example was Gravity’s Rainbow, critically acclaimed literature that was so dense and bereft of compelling narrative that few purchasers actually finished it.)
But now we have the “Hawking Index,” named after Stephen Hawking for his Brief History of Time, also hugely recommended and rarely finished. While we have no way of knowing how many Major Books purchased in hardcover at bookstores end up as doorstops, we now have data from Amazon Kindle books, which make available on their Amazon pages the location and number of notations users make within the book; it turns out many books have notations near the beginning but few or none near the end, indicating users did not make it that far. Since many books do have notations to the end, we know it’s not just because readers get tired of annotating; they simply stop reading.
WaPo has a good story on this, adding Hillary Clinton’s latest as another much-purchased, rarely-finished book, to go along with Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century as a best-selling bust with readers:
The summer’s most-read book? Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch.” Least-read? Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” for which the notations only get about 2.4 percent of the way in.
So, naturally, we decided to apply this methodology to “Hard Choices” and other recent or comparable political books. And we have our own ranking, which we now present in order from estimated-least- to estimated-most-read.
1. “Hard Choices,” by Hillary Clinton. Hawking Index: 2.04 percent. Well, there you have it. The deepest into Hard Choices the popular highlights get is page 33, a quote about smart power. Three of the five most-popular highlights occur within the first 10 pages. We will note the same caveat that Ellenberg applies to Piketty. “Hard Choices” is fairly new, and fairly long. Still, though, one would think more people had made it past page 33.
The most popular quote? “Do all the good you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” Which, like several of the top quotes from the authors listed below, isn’t actually a quote from Hillary Clinton. Instead, it’s a mantra from her family’s Methodist faith.
I took a look at my own book and the highlights readers chose seem to indicate most readers read it all the way through — the two most popular:
Most of the trouble in relationships is about bad signaling and poor responses. (6 Highlighters)
A good partner is reliable and available to help on call, whenever possible; a good partner leaves his partner alone when help is not needed, staying quietly available behind the scenes…. (5 Highlighters)
…which I actually wrote, though some of the prettiest language highlighted by users is quoted from other books (where a thought was expressed so beautifully I could not improve upon it.)