Stephen McGinty: Unread books uncovered

Only 46 per cent of e-book readers who had downloaded Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl managed to finish it. Picture: Merrick Morton

Only 46 per cent of e-book readers who had downloaded Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl managed to finish it. Picture: Merrick Morton

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ADVENT of Kindle combined with US mathematician’s Hawking Index has revealed just how much of the world’s literature is unfinished business for supposedly dedicated digital readers, writes Stephen McGinty.

My first encounter with a Kindle was four years ago, when I met a friend for a drink in a Glasgow pub and he began to proselytise about the vast shelves of books now compressed into his little grey tablet.

He clicked it on and began to scroll down the seemingly endless list of book titles, the majority of which he’d downloaded for free. I asked what he was currently reading and he replied that he was enjoying Cormac McCarthy’s blood-soaked western Blood Meridian. When I asked how much of it he had read, I found his reply to be rather chilling: “14 per cent”.

He hadn’t read “less than half” or “a quarter” or “only the first few chapters”, the casual, imprecise language in which book lovers have discussed their dutiful progress through a tome for decades if not centuries. No, this had been jettisoned in favour of numerical precision. A reading habit which had been largely unchanged for 600 years, one of hauling down a book from a shelf, sitting comfortably and marking the page last read with a bookmark, had undergone its own Reformation, dividing digital converts to a heavenly world of easy-access libraries and weight-free holiday reading from we stubborn Luddites who cling to the belief that a book isn’t really a book unless one can hear its spine crack.

This week, Kobo, the Canadian maker of an e-book reader, has united both sides in an ecumenical moment by pointing out that readers, be they of e-books or hardbacks, share a universal trait common to even the most devoted book buyer: the ability to start a book but never to get round to finishing it.

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In the past, whether a reader had or had not finished a book was between him or her and their conscience. However, new technology can tell if a reader has dutifully flicked through every digital page and reached the end, and the answer is, apparently, that even the most critically acclaimed novels and thrillers can – despite the breathless blurbs – be easily put down. Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize for The Goldfinch, which went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, but I wonder if she will feel slighted that only 44 per cent of buyers actually reached the end of a 784-page novel rapturously compared to the work of Charles Dickens? (Haven’t read it, thought about buying the paperback, picked it up a few times in Waterstones and then …put it back down again.) Or how about Gone Girl, the hit 456-page thriller by Gillian Flynn about deception and marital disharmony? Apparently only 46 per cent of readers found out whodunit, or didn’t do it. (Watched the movie instead. Much quicker.) The most surprising one on the list was Fifty Shades of Grey by E L James, with only 52 per cent of one-handed readers staying for the climax with the remainder falling by the wayside, perhaps after their own.

The report revealed that the most dedicated readership were fans of romance, with 62 per cent finishing their purchased books, followed by crime fans at 61 per cent.

This week’s report follows on from the diligent research conducted by Dr Jordan Ellenberg, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who created the Hawking Index to calculate which books had been abandoned after the fewest number of pages. Again, such insights into our reading habits was only possible since the invention of e-book readers, as the calculations are based on highlighted passages. The Hawking Index (HI) takes the specific page numbers of the book’s five top highlights, averages them, and divides by the number of pages in the whole book. The higher the number, the greater the evidence that the average reader read all the way to the end.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal, Dr Ellenberg, who qualified himself by adding that the method “was not remotely scientific and is for entertainment purposes only”, said the book with the lowest HI index was Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Highlighted passages tended to end around page 26.

The HI for Piketty’s book was 4 per cent, while Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, often described as the most unread book of all time, had an HI rating of 6.6 per cent. By comparison, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch – yes, the same book abandoned by 56 per cent of readers, according to Kobo – had an HI rating of 98.5 per cent, so perhaps Dr Ellenberg was right when he pointed out the system’s lack of scientific rigour. Or alternatively that Kindle readers are more diligent than those with Kobo.

Yet there is little doubt Piketty’s vast academic tome on economics will be the least-read bestseller of the year, just as A Brief History of Time was once displayed in homes as an intellectual totem rather than as a compelling or even comprehensible read.

There are a number of reasons why we abandon books, and a principal one is that we bought them because we felt we should rather than because we actually wanted to. The bookcase in my bedroom still has a copy of The Satanic Verses, which I bought in hardback as an 18-year-old. I managed to read a book about the controversy but not the book itself and even last year gave up after 19 pages, barely three more than my teenage self. I would have to live another four centuries to finish it at my current rate of consumption. I did try to read Ulysses by James Joyce and, again, gave up through lack of interest and the will to persevere and did the same, most recently, to James Ellroy’s Perfidia. A decade before I had quit The Cold Six Thousand at the half way point – or 50 per cent in today’s Kindle terms – as I could no longer sustain the belief that Ellroy’s staccato sentences were a genuine revolution in style rather than what I had come to view as a persistent irritation. However, I thought I’d give him the benefit of the doubt but still found his latest novel to be too much effort.

Do I feel guilt at casually tossing aside what has clearly been years of work? No, not for a second. The days when I forced myself to read every page of Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco just to prove wrong a friend who said I’d never finish it are, thankfully, long gone. Today I take pride in reading as much or as little of a book as I so desire and have made a decision to actively start working through the unread tomes on my shelves rather than collect new books.

There is now a sub-genre of books specifically about reading, such as Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing about her own attempt to read through her house, and there is part of me that takes fiendish delight in deciding to stop reading a book about reading. Hill writes: “A book which is left on the shelf is a dead thing, but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with potential to burst into new life.” This is true, but as readers we may not like a book that blooms into a bouquet of roses, preferring instead a cactus or a wild orchid, and so there will always be tomes that we decide to prematurely close the cover on or, if we belong to the brethren of the Kindle, click on to a new title.

I don’t think it matters if we abandon a novel or book we are no longer enjoying, as long as we keep reading. Pray let us not follow the example of Lord Redesdale, the father of the Mitford sisters, who said he had read only one book in his life, which was White Fang by Jack London. As his daughter Deborah Mitford said: “He enjoyed it so much, he vowed never to read another one.”

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