Amazon Popular Highlights, the “Hawking Index”, and Attention Spans

There’s so much more information about our reading habits online now, it’s tantalizing to think about the possibilities. Jordan Ellenberg (Wall Street Journal: “The Summer’s Most Popular Book is …”) had a clever use for Amazon’s Popular Highlights feature, while coining the phrase, “the Hawking Index*” about what Kindle users are — and aren’t reading:

“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. (Disclaimer: This is not remotely scientific and is for entertainment purposes only!)”

The results: 775-page The Goldfinch (surprisingly to me) was one of the most-finished reads, while 696-page Capital in the Twenty-First Century was the least finished on the list. It makes some sense that fiction — and perhaps especially serial fiction with their built-in cliffhangers and delayed narrative gratification — would see greater completion rates than nonfiction. What does all of this mean? Probably nothing without a bigger sample size of books, but it’s still neat to think about. I wonder if in the not-distant future, that kind of data about reading habits could influence the decision-making process of book publishers.

On a related note, check out The Atlantic’s compilation of The Most Popular Passages in Books, According to Kindle Data:

like any big business, publishing must always center on the mass: What do the most people want? What will the most people buy? What do people respond to? Between these two, there is a strange relationship. Companies collect and analyze this data, but rarely do readers get to see it.

From a social perspective, I do find interesting what passages carry resonance with a large number of readers. But in my own Kindle reading, I usually opt for turning Popular Highlights off because of the potential for distraction. It’s more than a little possible that there is a mirror neurons kind of effect going on; perhaps our eye is drawn towards those passages that others have highlighted because it feels more significant because of that appearance of social importance. On some level, we probably can’t help but look more closely at the passage that says “4000 other people highlighted this part of the book” as opposed to “11 other people highlighted this part of the book.”

Trivia: attention span of goldfish is 9 seconds

I do wonder about our collective attention spans, and how our reading habits are being shaped by the various forms in which we are now reading our books.

Science Fracture (The Rise of Short Fiction) also has some observations on Kindle Singles and the role it might contribute in shaping our reading habits — but if in fact our attention spans are gravitating towards shorter forms of content, why do longer form books (think: the Game of Thrones series and a combined 4000-plus pages and counting) remain so popular?

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* Because apparently, A Brief of History of Time is the book everyone says they’re going to read but never do.**

** note to self: finish reading A Brief History of Time