Which are the most unread books of 2014?

Jordan Ellenberg, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently designed the Hawking Index, named after Stephen Hawking's book 'A Brief History of Time' (often called 'the most unread book of all time'), to calculate which books are put down the most often.

Thomas Pinketty's work 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century' was calculated to be the 'most abandoned book' through Jordan Ellenberg's new index to calculate which books are most put down partway through.

We’ve all been there: full of good intentions, we choose an ambitious read – to broaden our minds, impress our friends, join the bandwagon… 

…only to abandon it 50 pages in.

That phenomenon – let’s call it literary desertion – has led one math professor to create an index to calculate the most abandoned books, and the findings are a bit surprising.

Jordan Ellenberg, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, designed the Hawking Index (HI), named after Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time,” dubbed “the most unread book of all time,” to rate the most unfinished books. He discusses his index and findings in the Wall Street Journal.

So who won the dubious distinction for the most abandoned book? 

Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” 

“The contest isn’t even close,” says Ellenberg in the WSJ. “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.” 

Here’s how Ellenberg calculated the most abandoned books. Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” feature on its Kindle books lists the five most highlighted passages by readers. Ellenberg figured that if readers were reading through the entire book, highlights would be scattered throughout the entire book. But if they weren’t getting very far, highlights would be clustered at the beginning of a book. 

That’s how he came up with the Hawking Index (HI), a completely unscientific number that determines how likely readers are to have finished, or abandoned, a book. As Ellenberg explained in the Journal, he took the page numbers of a book’s five top highlights, averaged them, and divided that number by the total pages in the entire book. “The higher the number, the more of the book we’re guessing most people are likely to have read,” he writes. 

The list contains several surprises, starting with one of the most finished bestsellers, a hot read of the year that weighs in at 771 pages: Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” with an impressive HI of 98.5 percent.

“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,” says Ellenberg.

Other books likely to be completed are Suzanne Collins’ “Catching Fire” (HI: 43.4%), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” (HI: 28.3%), E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey” (25.9%), and Michael Lewis’ “Flash Boys” (21.7%).

The most unread books?

With an HI of only 6.8 percent, Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” took third prize.

“Apparently the reading was more slow than fast,” writes Ellenberg.

Ringing in with an HI of 6.6 percent, Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” validates the index’s name.

And at only 2.4 percent on the HI, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” Piketty’s book has been crowned “the most unread book of the year.”

That should make literary deserters – those of us who give even bestsellers a boot halfway through – feel a whole lot better. 

As Ellenberg put it, “So take it easy on yourself, readers, if you don't finish whatever edifying tome you picked out for vacation. You're far from alone.” 

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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