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How to tell who’s really reading Thomas Piketty

11 July 2014

No one owns a Kindle for very long without becoming obsessed by its social highlighting feature: unless you go into the preferences to turn it off, the glibbest and most epigrammatic sentences in any popular book begin to appear with dotted lines underneath them and the words ’19 [or however many] people highlighted this’. Our own Mark Mason has written brilliantly and sympathetically  about the consequences. But it is now necessary to admit that he may have missed a trick.

It turns out you may be able to use Kindle highlights to make a rough estimate of how many people are actually reading a book, as opposed to just buying it. The technique was described by Jordan Ellenburg in the Wall Street Journal; I saw it on the reliably interesting academic blog Crooked Timber. He calls it the Hawking Index, after that great unread classic A Brief History of Time:

‘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!)’

On this measure, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch scores 98.5%, indicating compulsive readability and a highly quotable ending; and Thomas Piketty’s Inequality in the Twenty-first Century manages 2.4%, indicating either an exceptionally cogent and pithy introduction or a great many unread copies (or both). A Brief History of Time scores a relatively respectable 6.6%, but as Crooked Timber’s Harry Brighouse points out, this is probably a flattering result: the vast bulk of the unread copies will be in good, old-fashioned print.

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Show comments
  • Daniel Roger José Demaret

    I bought both the audible-version and the kindle-version.
    This way I could listented to it carefully during long rehab excercise walks and got two things done at the same time
    I used the kindle to search, study the diagrams, even if they were well described int the text and go in-depth by reading the external references that the book referred to.

    In my case, just looking what I did in the kindle would show an incorrect bias.

    If other readers have done as I have, then the deduction that people do not read the book may well be totally false.

  • Gwangi

    People tend to buy books that everyone else is buying, even if they are yawningly long and tedious – such as the Time Travelers Wife or The Goldfinch.
    People are just sheep really. Baaaa….

    I have read far better unknown novels, some even self-published, in the last year than any on the shortlists of book awards. That’s because I take risks and don’t follow the crowd. I also know how utterly croneyistic and corrupt the review system in newspapers is, not to mention the dodgy blurbs and quotes on covers (often writers share an agent), or the whole Amazon-gate review scam.

  • Ahobz

    I can see the point. I tri the link post by Harvir Dhillon below to Piketty’s response to the FT and just about late the first page. Mind-numbingly unappealing writing.

  • Ron Todd

    If they buy a book for kindle they probably intend to read it. If they buy a hard copy it could be just for display.

  • dado_trunking

    Pays the bills tho’ dunnit. That’s what matters to capitalists – turnover, not content.

  • Winston Burchill

    A good old-fashioned book suffices.

  • Kitty MLB

    Brief History of Times is truly excellent as is Stephen Hawkins
    although I must add he’s not awfully fond of computers, he
    believes they are trying to take over from human intelligence…but
    he’s an inspiration.

    I must admit that i am impressed with the features of my kindle
    and its good to have a book instantly and they are excellent whilst
    travelling.But in my humble opinion nothing beats wandering around some old bookshop, its the feel of the paper too.
    When you are sitting by a roaring fire in the middle of winter with
    a glass of wine, it must be with a traditional book..
    I am reading The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy at present
    and you can’t find that on kindle.

    • Ooh!MePurse!

      Kitty darling, we should be wed.

      • Kitty MLB

        I remember as a student and first reading the words
        of Ovid, I thought that and did so for the entire 5 years
        at university.

        When I first met the hubby, he said how can I compete
        with a dead Roman and I said: words are xrays to a
        persons soul, whilst they travel through the midst
        of time a person never dies.

        You see what my poor hubby lives with, he deserves
        a knighthood..I shall ask David Cameron.

    • Hexhamgeezer

      Kitty try

      and its free!

      • Hexhamgeezer

        You cant beat a book and a roaring fire especially when it turns out to be tripe as it can go straight on that fire.

        • Kitty MLB

          Yes, a good point, you can’t put the kindle on the fire..
          Thanks for the recommendation above.

  • JoeDM

    After the devastating review in the Financial Times that pointed out numerous ‘issues’ with the data used I’m surprised anyone is bothered to read it.

    • Harvir Dhillon

      After the devastating response that Piketty gave to FT’s expose, I’m surprised people still bother with the expose.

      • whs1954

        Arrogant self-important left-wing and ultimately wrong Frenchman does not let deadly accurate wounding criticism lie, but responds in usual pompous but wrong fashion and expects his response to be taken as gospel; world in shock.

        • Harvir Dhillon

          Another argumentum ad hominem that doesn’t even begin to look at the data he cites along with a newer paper by Emmanuel Saez that provide additional evidence to support his claims about inequality in the UK. This isn’t about left and right. Severe income and wealth inequality will do great damage in the long run.

      • Gwangi

        Piketty is French. Enough said…

        Of course, he is also an academic (always best to ignore those pompous self-obsessed waffle-tops – they should stick to writing tedious tomes for bored students in lecture rooms stinking of pension funds and hypocrisy).

        He also hates les Anglo-Saxons and wants France and French centralised bureaucratic Napoleonics to rule the world – as they have always been trying to do with the EU.

        The solution?
        Well, can’t be bomb France maybe? We’ve got the guns… And it’d give our disillusioned Islamic youth something useful to do…

      • John Gerard

        It’s the usual clap trap one would expect from a member of the French Economic mafia.

    • dado_trunking

      The FT did no.such.thing, laddie.

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