July 5, 2014

Using Amazon's "Popular Highlights" feature to see whether the books people bought are actually getting read.

"Every book's Kindle page lists the 5 passages most highlighted by readers," notes Jordan Ellenberg in The Wall Street Journal. If the highlights come from all over the book or near the end, it suggests people are actually reading it. When the highlights all come from the beginning, they probably are not.

Ellenberg — who's a UW-Madison math prof — does some calculations and declares that the most unread book of the summer is Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the Twenty-First Century":
Mr. Piketty's book is almost 700 pages long, and the last of the top five popular highlights appears on page 26.

55 comments:

chuck said...

Who needs to read it? One can just assume that all of the publicized conclusions are correct. It's like Das Kapital or climate science in that regard.

Eric said...

I'm gonna dump Instapundit off my feedly. Would never do that to Althouse.

john said...

Ahem, borrowed from Tyler Cohen.

I wonder where Geithner's Stress Test lies. I am slogging through it, promised myself that I would finish and try to write a review.

And Hillary's book. Is it fair to include a book genre that is specifically written to be not-read?

EDH said...

...the most unread book of the summer is Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the Twenty-First Century"

Spoiler Alert: Why bother to read when you know it reaches all of the correct conclusions?

Anonymous said...

The only people reading Hillary's book right now are Donna Braziile and Madeline Albright. Politico told us so. Brazile is probably lying, but I suspect Albright is just dumb enough to go cover to cover.

Tyrone Slothrop said...

Not reading Piketty? I guess people just aren't into humor this summer.

Anonymous said...

Terrible Reading Comprehension Guy says:

This has nothing to do with Scarlett Johansson suing a French fiction author over his writing. Althouse seems to revel in missing the point.

KK Kraska said...

Books like Piketty's are the very definition of a "modern classic": Everybody refers to it, but very few have read it all the way through, and even fewer actually understand it.

Bob R said...

I like the fact that there's a book that got 98%. (For those who didn't read that's the location of the average place of the most popular comments.) Maybe there's a lot of Agatha Christie novels like that where people got impatient and skipped to the end to find out who done it.

Jim S. said...

I don't trust this criterion. I rarely highlight books, but occasionally I've started books by highlighting, found it still doesn't work for me, and so stopped highlighting after the first several pages. This study would conclude that I didn't read much further in the books, but it would be incorrect.

William Teach said...

Of course, the problem with this is that not everyone highlights. I read around 2 books a week. Granted, they're primarily fiction, but I have almost never highlighted in Kindle. I rarely do that with non fiction.

Left Bank of the Charles said...

What's the HI on Hard Choices? You can bet Hillary's interns are busy this weekend highlighting passages near the end.

Mini Mongo said...

I've had a Kindle for 2.5 years or so. In that time I've downloaded approximately 240 books plus library checkouts and Kindle monthly loans. So maybe 260 total. I've probably completed 50% of the books I've downloaded, dug deeply into 30%, and hope to get to the other 20% some time in the future. In that time I have highlighted nothing. I doubt I'm alone. As a result am highly suspect of even the most casual conclusion drawn from studying the Amazon highlights.

Lance said...

Someone should start a blog: Stuff White Liberal Women Like but Never Read.

sojerofgod said...

Piketty's book is a coffee table book. No I'm not referring to its size, but the 'in' crowd can leave it lying around and appear to be smart to their oh-so in crowd friends, who haven't read it either. WARNING! major social faux pas if you actually ASK someone at the party about any of the details in the book!
"When assuming your are the smartest person in the room, its best to be alone" -attributed to me.
Sojer.

Michael K said...

I don't highlight and I use Kindle mostly for fiction.

tim maguire said...

Do they know anything about how representative highlighters are of the wider non-highlighting book-reading public?

sydney said...

What percentage of readers highlight while reading? I don't. I consider it a defacement of the book. Ruins it for people who might read it later. I feel so strongly about it, I can't even bring myself to highlight electronic books. I use bookmarks instead.

FleetUSA said...

Congratulations U of W for more debunking of liberal myths.

Mid-Life Lawyer said...

Makes perfect sense to me. When I was a young liberal I frequently bought the "right books", rarely read them, but left them lying around for others to see.

Original Mike said...

I haven't read Piketty (either), but what I have read are analyses by people who are in a position to critique it. I've read several which say that the problem with his thesis is he gets lots of the data wrong. Not just his conclusions, but his "facts" are wrong.

retired said...

"What's the HI on Hard Choices? You can bet Hillary's interns are busy this weekend highlighting passages near the end"

Snark of the year!

Skeptical Voter said...

Well you can argue that not everybody highlights. I don't highlight on Kindle. I save(d) that for texts I was studying in college or law school.

But the metric says that--among people who highlight on Kindle--Pilketty's book is an absolute dog. It's a factoid so you can take it for what it's worth. But before I believe anyone who claims that they have actually plowed all the way through Pilketty, they're going to have to give me a notarized affidavit!

I suspect that Nielsen TV audience share ratings are based on a similarly narrow sliver of the "audience" or "population". But we accept those ratings with no skepticism.

Of course I don't watch popular television anyway --other than sports, so what do I care how accurate the Nielsen metric is?

Emil Blatz said...

I reckon they don't call it the dismal science fo' nuthin'.

Sam L. said...

How many times have I read about some book that is selling, and being seen carried? And read, not so much?

robinintn said...

I read a lot, mostly ebooks now, and I never highlight. all the considerations (is it worth it? Is this the whole thing? Will there be something better later on? Am I highlighting too much? Not enough? Will I remember without it? Etc.) involved interfere with the reasons I read. So I find the criteria suspect as well. Also, I often don't read something for months or even a couple of years.

Mrs Whatsit said...

Why would anyone highlight a book they're reading for pleasure? Highlighting is for work or study. I've owned Kindles for four or five years, read hundreds of Kindle books and never highlighted a line.

Ambrose said...

I must confess that I have had a kindle since 2011, have read many books on it and do not have the slightest idea how to highlight a passage.

Crazy Jane said...

I call bullshit. Kahneman deserves a read; we quote it often at my house.

Piketty is different. It was accepted as nothing new in France. It is not new if you want an America to become a social democratic country. Which isn't working well in France, at least at the moment.

I have appreciated the easy, light access to books from Kindle, but I'm having second thoughts. I'm thinking to going back to books in print. The new downloading is just another damned invasion of my privacy.




we next going to have to report how many green vegetables we eat in a given day? How many potato chips?

-Peder said...

I'm using my Kindle to read through a number of the Great Books of the Western World and I've noticed this phenomenon in many cases. I read some Kant last year and all of the most highlighted responses were in the introduction - written about Kant by someone else.

Henry said...

The most unread book of my summer is The Nature of the Physical World by Arthur Stanley Eddington. I swear I'll get to it.

Notice that all the top winners are nonfiction.

Maybe this isn't about readers, but about genre. Fiction is coy with culminations. Nonfiction wears its heart on its sleeve.

Portia said...

Who hilights? I just read, even non kindle books. And yes, I read mostly fiction.

Ornithophobe said...

I read a minimum of three books a week, but I haven't highlighted a book since college. I read for pleasure, I read to gain new knowledge... I don't read to make marks in books. I've had a Kindle for years, but never learned to highlight in it. Heck, I didn't even figure out you could rotate the text sideways until about a week ago.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Enh, add me to the list of people who are never going to use the Kindle's highlighting feature. Actual, physical highlighter is annoying enough; you're telling me that we're supposed to do the same with e-books?

That said, I'm not surprised at all about the Piketty result. That really is the sort of book you pretend to have read.

I recently bought a pile of bookcases and managed to get all of my boxed-up books assembled in the guest bedroom, just in time for my parents to occupy it :-) It was interesting to see what was there, over decades of acquisitions. Tons of mysteries, of course; texts on Cartesian tensors and theoretical hydrodynamics; books on watch repair and politics and constitutional law and cats and a whole lot of P.G. Wodehouse and not a little George Will and some falconry and some language stuff and some Catholic stuff and a pile of Florence King, next to a pile of Larry Niven ... well, you get the idea. That room is sort of Idealized Dorm Room -- what I'd like to have had back in the day, except that there's no way I could've shifted all those books.

Brn said...

This immediately made me think of this:

In 1985, when he was at the New Republic, Michael Kinsley did an experiment where he and a colleague put coupons for $5 about 70% of the way through "Deadly Gambits" (an arms control policy book that was widely claimed to have been read and was mentioned approvingly by Walter Mondale in a presidential debate). No one ever claimed them.

When he talked with people about these types of books and asked people if they had really read every word of books, even ones that they had written about, he was told "Well, I mean, it's not the kind of book you do that, is it?" (Collected in "Curse of the Giant Muffins", p162)

He concluded "This typical respondent has stumbled on a central truth about a certain kind of book:... These books don't exist to be read. They exist, above all, to be reviewed."

Terry said...

If Piketty is saying that in a no-growth economy wealth is transferred from the poor to the rich, it's a triviality. Adam Smith wrote about this phenomenon over two centuries ago.
The fact that few economists have mentioned this tells me that few economists have actually read Wealth of Nations.

Anonymous said...

I notice Ace of Spades has now mentioned the Scarlett Johannson Defamation case. I wonder if someone there reads the comments at Althouse.

glenn said...

"Mr. Piketty's book is almost 700 pages long, and the last of the top five popular highlights appears on page 26".

That's because people buy the book because their liberal friends did. Then they start to read it and discover early on that it's a big pile of stinkypoo.

stlcdr said...

How do we know Althouse commenters read the articles she links to?

Freeman Hunt said...

I read almost entirely non-fiction, and I love to highlight. Then when I wonder a few years after reading a book what I found noteworthy about it, I can easily find out.

Freeman Hunt said...

I don't usually highlight printed books. Only Kindle.

Ann Althouse said...

I love the highlighting feature in Kindle. I don't think about it as I'm reading, but when a passage appeals to me in a special way... well, then I might blog it. But in another less special way, I highlight. All my highlighted passages are collected on a page at Amazon, and that page is a very personal derivative work of art. I can learn something different about myself browsing there.

Bob Ellison said...

I've had a Kindle since they first came out. In fact, I've bought eight of them (all of my family has 'em). I, too, never highlight anything.

But the metric is likely at least a good pointer to what the public at large is doing with Piketty's book.

On the other hand, most persuasive essays of any length tend to put the most concise statements of their theses at the front. Maybe the first 26 pages are the most readable ones.

From Inwood said...

A classmate of mine & his new partners were starting a firm many years ago. They decided to buy used books for their library so that it would look to clients that they had actually read a case in one or two of those books.

Also made for a good photo background.

Another trick from undergrad days when overwhelmed with reading assignments: read the opening chapter & the last one of some overwrought tome along with a good review of it.

Of course education was really about reading the actual book assigned & if one did this regularly, one missed out on a good education.

And yes, I read Shakespeare's plays rather than Cliffs Notes or Charles Lamb for that matter.

And so, I have no intention of reading Piketty, based on the reviews I have read.

My more detailed answer to those who challenge me on the ‘Net or at some gathering by saying: “But have you read X’s book (whatever)?”

Asked by Liberals who probably have never read a Conservative book & vice versa or by a guy putting someone down for lack of, um, gravity, by snarkly asking if that someone has ever read a book on quantum mechanics when all they’re talking about is something simple like the physical concept of gravity.

So, of course, the obvious response is: has the questioner, in turn, read every Conservative/ Liberal book, as the case may be, on the subject in point, & is this is a scholarly class limited to this particular “authority’s” work rather than the subject in general. Since the answer to both is, obviously, “no”, that, plus following, usually suffices:
"And yes, I haven't read much of X’s book [paper, monograph, thesis, whatever]. So I won’t criticize X's book [whatever] as if I were doing a book report. I’ll just note that, IMHO, X is a rather tendentious person, or, as we used to say back in Inwood, 'a guy wid a attitude', & any book written by a rather tendentious person will have tons of rather tendentious things in it (a marshalling of the evidence, as we lawyers say), which the rather tendentious author is, as in this case, only too happy to regurgitate endlessly on talk shows & which rather tendentious things some credentialed critics will publicize either as rather tendentious, or as fonts of wisdom, as the case may be. QED, I feel qualified to join in such ridicule of X’s rather far-from-unique tendentious theories, hypotheses, claims, etc. & of its rather tendentious author, even tho I have not read any or all of his book [paper, monograph, thesis, whatever]. Look,I never finished Das Kapital or Mein Kampf either."

Bob Ellison said...

From Inwood, "no, I have not read that" is a very strong argumentative point. It says simultaneously: 1) no, and 2) I am honest.

People tend to take their own conclusions from what you say anyway. "No, I have not read the Koran" is taken to mean "no, I have no idea what Islam is about", for example.

I have not read Piketty.

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SWWBO said...

I stopped highlighting books when I graduated from college.

I have never highlighted a book on my kindle.

And, actually, it's a little creepy that Amazon is able to look into my reading habits like that.

Tom Becks said...

I'm reading it now and have reached page 300, but my reading speed has slowed to a crawl. It's definitely heavy sledding. I'm skipping most of the charts, and more or less just looking for nuggets of insight, if any can be found. Very few non-economists will be able to comprehend much of the detail of Piketty's argument, but the overall thrust is simple and often repeated: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. He's a diffident Marxist looking for a way to dress up kumbiyah leftwing economics in a respectable suit.

Saint Croix said...

Hugo Black used to highlight the stuff that pissed him off. One of his clerks went on to write a book about a living, breathing Constitution. It was filled with highlights.

So when Hugo Black died, the priest who was working on the eulogy was in Black's library and happened to find this book with all the highlights. So he wrote the eulogy quoting all these sentences that Hugo Black absolutely hated.

Saint Croix said...

Donna Tartt's readability is insanely high. 98% of people who start her book read it all the way through.

I read her first book. It was very heavy, very literary, but also incredibly well-written. I'm not sure I want to start her new book, but I know if I do, I will read it all the way.

Saint Croix said...

books on watch repair and politics and constitutional law and cats and a whole lot of P.G. Wodehouse

My favorite author, the best wordsmith in the English language, I think. Just for love of language and putting you in a happy place, Wodehouse.

Charlie Martin said...

As a result am highly suspect of even the most casual conclusion drawn from studying the Amazon highlights.

Because the fact that you haven't read a book is evidence against the observation that it looks like lots of other people aren't reading a book?

Come again?

mikee said...

There was that pretentious summer after college freshman year, when I bought Joyce's Ulysses with the intention of enjoying it a few pages at a time over the next three months.

That was 35 years ago and I still haven't cracked it open.

Peter said...

The secret of Kindle's success: it's so easy to buy that owners tend to buy far more than they actually read?

AlanKH said...

Do widely-purchased, little-read tomes tend to dominate the bin for donated books? If so, based on albeit anecdotal evidence I'd venture to guess that one of the least-read books of yore was "Primary Colors." I actually read my copy, but the used-book store wouldn't take it.