Unfinished tales: The books you never finished reading

Bermuda shorts. Check. Swimming togs x2. Check. Factor 50. Check. War & Peace, Ulysses. Ch... Hold it a minute.

Unfinished tales: The books you never finished reading

Taking Tolstoy’s masterpiece or James Joyce’s head-wrecker to the beach may not be such a good idea, even if you want something a bit more challenging than the forgettable holiday read.

For starters, it’s not easy trying to manhandle the 1,222 pages of War & Peace while lying in a deck chair lathered in sun tan lotion.

More importantly, though, it’s too ambitious and there are far too many characters to keep track of. As for Ulysses, well, even Marilyn Monroe found it hard going.

No matter how hard you try, you will never get to the end of either book.

The same goes for Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, widely regarded as “the most unread book of all time”. But there is a newcomer on the block — Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

Both are brilliant and absorbing but both are also among the most common summer “non-reads” that end up buried in the sand long before the final chapter.

Jordan Ellenberg, an American mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, has compiled a list of unread books by using the highlights feature on Amazon’s ebook reader, Kindle.

Calculating how the most highlighted passages were spread through well-known books, he has created a playful Hawking Index (HI) to evaluate how long people will stay reading.

Using his system, he discovered readers in their droves gave up on Hillary Clinton’s memoirs, Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century before they were even a tenth of the way through.

Far more bookworms persevered with the light erotica of Fifty Shades of Grey and the teen violence of Catching Fire, part of The Hunger Games series.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Dr Ellenberg concedes that the method is “not remotely scientific” and is for entertainment purposes only.

“Every book’s Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers,” writes Ellenberg. “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.”

According to his calculations, the most “unread” book was Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, with a HI of 2.4%. So much for the economic sage of our time.

The French economist, who visited Ireland last month, writes that global inequality has worsened. That’s not exactly summertime fare. At almost 700 pages long, the last of the popular Kindle highlights end on page 26 — barely 4% of the way through the book. “It came out just three months ago. But the contest isn’t even close,” says Ellenberg.

Hawking’s A Brief History of Time might have inspired the name of the index but it came second with a HI of 6.6%.

Surprisingly, the raunchy novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, did not do as well as might have been expected. Although still on the Amazon bestseller lists, it came in the middle ground with an HI of 25.9%.

Even more so is the front-runner, Donna Tartt’s impressive literary novel, The Goldfinch, which won her a Pulitzer prize and — more significantly — a HI score of 98.5%, indicating that most people who started it finished it.

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