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

New Book: Toronto World Film Locations

toronto world film locationsHere’s a new book that I worked on: World Film Locations, Toronto (ed. Tom Ue).

This was a fun project — combining brief film essays, local Toronto history, and some fascinating side-by-side photo comparisons of familiar movie scenes with their real-life locations. As it turns out, Toronto has quite the long history with Hollywood projects (just take a quick glance at this long list of films shot in Toronto).

The book covers quite a range of movies –from 1980s classics like A Christmas Story and Police Academy, to superhero genres like X-Men and The Incredible Hulk, award-winning dramas like Good Will Hunting and cool Indie flicks like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (one of my personal favorites from the book).

scottpilgrimvstheworld7For Toronto film location fans, the Reel Toronto series from Torontoist is an indispensable resource, which sums things up nicely:

Toronto’s extensive work on the silver screen reveals that, while we have the chameleonic ability to look like anywhere from New York City to Moscow, the disguise doesn’t always hold up to scrutiny. Reel Toronto revels in digging up and displaying the films that attempt to mask, hide, or—in rare cases—proudly display our city.” 

Amazon’s “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime”

100 books to read in a lifetimeOk, I’m kind of a sucker for book lists. Have you seen Amazon’s “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime“?

It’s actually a fairly interesting mix. And here’s a link to the GoodReads version — I wonder what the list composition would look like if it were a crowd-sourced list.

Some tidbits from their press release:

  • Oldest book on the list: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
  • Most recently published book on the list: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (2013)
  • Book on the list that inspired the most internal debate: 1984 by George Orwell
  • A few books that were unanimous across the team: Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Really, Portnoy’s Complaint? Maybe I’m just not a liver fan.

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And for those that don’t want to scroll through the Amazon website to see the full title list (like me), here’s the list:

1984 by George Orwell

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

A Series of Unfortunate Events #1: The Bad Beginning: The Short-Lived Edition by Lemony Snicket

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Alice Munro: Selected Stories by Alice Munro

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

All the President’s Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt

Are You There, God? It’s me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Born To Run – A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown

Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Book 1 by Jeff Kinney

Dune by Frank Herbert

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared M. Diamond

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Color of Water by James McBride

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Giver by Lois Lowry

The Golden Compass: His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The House At Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Liars’ Club: A Memoir by Mary Karr

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1) by Rick Riordan

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

The Shining by Stephen King

The Stranger by Albert Camus

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Novel by Haruki Murakami

The World According to Garp by John Irving

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann

Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

 

Cool: Oxford’s Gutenberg Bible Online, in Amazingly High Resolution

Gutenberg-bible-How  cool is this? From Open Culture: “Oxford University Presents the 550-Year-Old Gutenberg Bible in Spectacular, High-Res Detail

“This Tuesday, The Polonsy Foundation Digitization Project, which aims to digitize the collections of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries and the Vatican’s Biblioteca Apostolica, made a virtual version of the Gutenberg Bible available online.”

Fewer than fifty copies of the Gutenberg Bibles are known to exist in the world, and you can visit the very high-resolution scans of Oxford Bodleian Library’s copy here.

The Polonsky Foundation Digital Project is a collaboration between The Bodleian Libraries and the Vatican Library and is definitely one of the world’s most interesting digitization projects.

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And, for those of us in California: there’s also The Huntington Library’s excellent rare books collection, with its Gutenberg Bible on permanent display. Worth a visit. (And check out the cactus garden, too).

On Reading Books in the Dark

I am an avid bedtime reader, for better or for worse. So this article from the Wall Street Journal, “Does reading in dim light hurt your eyes?” certainly piqued my curiosity. It’s worth a read, if for nothing else than the part about pirates and eye patches.

tablet-dark

“Turns out, our parents were wrong. “There is no reason to believe nor evidence to support that any long-term damage to the eyes or change in the physiology to the eyes can be caused by reading in the dark,” Dr. Sheedy says.

… “The predominant determinant of myopia is genetics.” No link to long-term damage has ever been conclusively shown, says Dr. Sheedy. “It’s an old tale, a ploy used by moms to get kids to go to sleep when they wanted them to,” he says.

Reading on a tablet device won’t damage your eyes, Dr. Sheedy says. His team has studied various fonts, computer displays and pixel resolutions, and found the difference in effect on the eye between reading e-ink and the printed word to be negligible.”

Reading in the dark hurts your eyes: more myth than reality? While it likely varies on an individual basis, there might be some science to be said about backlit screens around bedtime, but I much prefer an E-Ink screen for reading in the dark.

And on a related note, check out this neat article from the San Francisco Chronicle: “Reading in the dark – with a headlamp

“Usually when reading, we may be concentrating on a line or a sentence, but somewhere in the back of our minds, we’re also seeing the larger context, the whole paragraph, the page, and even the next page. We notice whether the paragraphs to come are long, whether we’re at the end of a chapter; sometimes our eyes wander from the sentence to look ahead, reading a few words or a sentence, and then returning to where we were …

 The headlamp changed everything. There was nothing but that circle of light that didn’t even cover the whole page, just a small chunk of words. To see the next group of words, I had to move my head slightly or move the book. I was no longer reading in a context, but reading each line as it came into view.”

The immersive aspect of our eyeballs focused on just a circle of words sounds wonderful to me. I kind of want to buy a headlamp now.

 

New! Haruki Murakami!

Samsa in LoveThe New Yorker has published Haruki Murakami’s new short story “Samsa in Love.” For Murakami or Kafka fans, it’s well worth the read:

“He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa .. 

All he knew was that he was now a human whose name was Gregor Samsa. And how did he know that? Perhaps someone had whispered it in his ear while he lay sleeping? But who had he been before he became Gregor Samsa? What had he been?”

Picture of the new Haruki Murakami novel, and a cat.
Picture of the new Haruki Murakami novel, and a cat.

At least those 7000 or so words will have to tide fans over until the English translates of Murakami’s newest novel, Coloruless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage  comes out some time vaguely next year (Los Angeles Times: “Haruki Murakami’s latest novel to be published in the U.S. in 2014.”) Based on the popularity of 1Q84 and the Harry Potter-esque demand of the novel in Japan, I am hopeful it’ll be worth the wait.

BookRx, and Book Recommendations … from Twitter?

books from twitterI’m always interested in new ways that people are using data to gain insight into readerly behavior. So here’s a neat idea: BookRx is a recently launched experiment from the Knight Lab, which crawls a Twitter feed (assuming one tweets about books), to make book recommendations.

The Huffington Post has a good interview, with some additional information —

How does it work?

BookRx works in two phases. In the first phase, it analyzes your tweets (in terms of the words, Twitter usernames, and hashtags you use) and compares them to terms that are correlated with book categories. In the second phase, it looks within those categories to find specific books to recommend, again based on correlations with the terms in your tweets. The first phase is very fast but the second takes a few seconds.

BookRx

What can people’s Twitter word usage tell us about their personalities?
That’s a really interesting question. We’re really interested in how Twitter can hold up a mirror to ourselves, and seeing BookRx’s recommendations might be one way to do that. That’s one of the reasons we show you the terms you used that made the system think you might be interested in a book it’s recommending to you — to make its operation a bit more visible.”

The Secret Sauce of book recommendations has always been rather mysterious, so I do like the BookRx approach. From Mashable,New Web App Recommends Books Based on Your Tweets” — 

…  For some, there is something innately unsettling about AI predictions. It is even more disturbing when the computer is accurate. Unlike sites like Amazon and Google, however, BookRx shows you the exact words you tweeted that led to its various recommendations.”

I think the idea for the experiment is very clever. It’s something to keep an eye on, particularly if they have good luck growing their user base — if BookRx is something that catches on, it’ll be interesting to see what kinds of information it can tell us about reading recommendations (and how good, or bad, those recommendations are).

Books and McDonalds … not that crazy of an idea?

mcdonalds-happy-reader-DK-BooksWhat if we could gave away millions of books to children for free? Every day? This news story started to sound less crazy to me, the more I thought about it. Per The Atlantic: “The U.K.’s Biggest Distributor of Children’s Books Is About to Be … McDonald’s” —

“It’s easy to make fun of the experimental McLiterature initiative — in the way that it’s easy to make fun of McDonald’s itself. But the chain is, like it or not, a juggernaut … one that has, as such, immense power over the impressionable kids among its customers. And this could be one way — one small way that, via McDonald’s mass impact, could prove significant — to get kids excited about reading. The initiative, Yahoo Shine reports, was inspired by data from Britain’s National Literacy Trust

…finding innovative new methods of getting books into kids’ hands. And that’s a good thing. But it means a strange, telling twist: McDonald’s expects to distribute 15 million books over the course of its initiative, between now and 2014. Which means that it will become the biggest distributor of children’s books in the entire United Kingdom.”

happy-meal

Will kids go for books over toys? Sure, it’s possible. Most won’t. But, some might. And if even some small percentage of those children discover a love of books who might not ordinarily have picked up a book, then I would say McDonald’s would have done a damn good job. The upshot of the “Happy Readers” experiment, hopefully, is that this could inspire book publishers to think up more creative ways of getting books in the hands of more readers.

Apparently there are no current plans for a U.S. version, which is too bad. The L.A. Times (“Will the kids love it? McDonald’s swaps Happy Meal toys for books“) dreams upon such a possibility … 150 million free books to children? From Happy Meals? Wow.