Friday, July 25, 2014
The Hawking Index
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."Some years ago I bought a good, sturdy copy of William Langland's Piers the Plowman, with notes by W.W. Skeat, for two dollars. The first eighty lines have interlinear and marginal notes in ink. Obviously the original owner didn't read more than three pages of the text before giving up. I find this very often in secondhand school editions of Greek and Latin texts—English definitions of practically every word, scrawled all over the first few pages, then no sign that the rest of the book was read at all.
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.
The Hawking Index could be skewed upwards, however, by selective skimming. See, for example, how a young woman describes her friend, a student at Yale, in William Deresiewicz, "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League," New Republic (July 21, 2014):
No one but me knows he fakes being well-read by thumbing through the first and last chapters of any book he hears about and obsessively devouring reviews in lieu of the real thing.Related post: Unit of Taciturnity: The Dirac.