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A Brief History of NOT Finishing Books

July 19, 2014
No, I didn't finish reading this either.

No, I didn’t finish reading this either.

Some readers take pride in finishing books, no matter what. Even though I’ve never been much of a book finisher, I used to pretend. I’d carry thick, classic, crusty, hard-bound novels like War and Peace or Les Miserables. I could get away with pretending because I had a collection of Classics Illustrated comic books that gave me all the important information. I knew all the names and basic details from each book because of the comics, and nobody in public school cared about theme or symbolism until late in high school. Everybody thought I was smarter than I really was. It was a good gig.

Now it’s possible to (kind of) tell if readers have actually finished a book, and it’s all Amazon’s fault. It’s bad enough that Amazon is trying to use drones to deliver products, but now Amazon is also ruining my pseudo-literary scam. In Amazon’s defense, It might not be intentional. It all started because Amazon keeps track of sentences that readers highlight on the Kindle. That by itself might be harmless. But some professor from Wisconsin has figured out a way to use the highlighting to determine where a reader stops reading.

The system, The Hawking Index, was inspired by Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time, a book that a lot of people bought but very few really read. I never bought A Brief History of Time. I like history, and I like brief books, but I remember scanning the first couple pages years ago and thinking, “This is really boring.” I don’t care how short the book is; if it’s boring, I don’t buy it. Unfortunately, I didn’t get included in the Hawking Index because I didn’t even buy the book that inspired the index of books that people don’t finish. Too bad there’s no way to track people who didn’t even buy the book before not finishing it.

The Hawking Index (or the professor who figured it out) measures highlighted text in the Kindle and how far into the book that the last highlighted text is. Then it matches the number of highlighted text with the page numbers and… I’m going to stop there. If I go into more details, you might stop reading. I don’t want people to stop reading my article about people who stop reading books.

According to the Index, the most unfinished book right now is Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton. People who don’t like Hillary Clinton probably find satisfaction with that, but this doesn’t hurt her. Hillary Clinton already has her huge book advance, so she won’t financially suffer if nobody finishes her book. She probably didn’t even write it (I think James Patterson wrote it for her), so why would she care if people don’t finish it? Clinton couldn’t even be bothered with thinking of a good title. Even George W. Bush came up with a better book title (Decision Points), and he was supposed to be the dumb one. If I were a politician writing a memoir, I’d want to have a better title than George Bush’s book. Since the only part of the memoir people seem to read is the title, it had better be good.

The novel that seems to get finished most frequently is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. This would be a great way to promote a book: A novel that 98.5% of readers finish! I originally had no intention of reading The Goldfinch, but now I’m curious. I don’t care if a book is a bestseller. I tend to naturally dislike books that are bestsellers, but a book that gets finished 98.5% of the time? That’s… astounding! I don’t care if this index is nonscientific and for entertainment purposes only (like football spreads), but 98.5% is mindboggling. I almost have to read The Goldfinch. In fact, I think I’ll start The Goldfinch and NOT finish it just to be in that stubborn 1.5% that hasn’t gotten to the end. But I might end up liking it. I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn just to criticize it, but then I enjoyed it and had to admit to another book critic that… I… was… wrong.

According to Amazon, the second most-highlighted text is the first sentence from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. It’s a great sentence, but why does anybody highlight the first sentence of a novel? It’s the first sentence. Even the most incompetent of readers should know where to find it again. If it had been on page 158 (or even on page 2), I could understand highlighting.  I know that the first page on a Kindle is more difficult to find than the first page of a real book, but still, it’s the first page. Highlighting the first sentence of a book seems to defeat the purpose of highlighting. It’s almost as bad as highlighting everything.

*****

I’m an expert on not finishing books. Nobody else doesn’t finish books better than me. I don’t finish more books than anybody else I know. I haven’t finished reading so many books, that I can’t keep track of all of them. My Kindle is filled with free book samples, and I haven’t finished reading those yet!  Even better, I don’t highlight. So if I purchase a book and don’t finish it, Amazon would never know, and I can still show off all my books on my phone and pretend that I’ve read them all. But showing off books on your phone/Kindle is lame. Book shelves are much cooler.

*****

But enough about me! Do you highlight when you read? Do you finish most books that you start? Do you lie about finishing books you haven’t read? Would you lose respect for somebody if you found out they hadn’t read everything on their bookshelves (or on their phones/Kindles)?

*****

It’s brief, and it’s not about history, so it’s very easy to finish.

Now available on Amazon!

Only 99 cents on the Amazon Kindle!

52 Comments
  1. I must confess a terrible truth here…I don’t highlight. Why highlight a sentence or passage? Will it be on the test? Will I forget the hidden wisdom garnered by reading? If I read it again, to have the satisfaction of nodding (sagely) in agreement?
    I read obsessively. I will throw aside a book for being utterly boring. That is my only litmus test…did it keep my attention.
    Btw, you do not bore me and give me something to think about. I will not be highlighting your blog though.

    • I don’t use a highlighter either. I never have, not even in college. When I check out a book from the library or buy a used book, I’ll flip through it first to see if anybody has highlighted or written in it. I think highlighting in a book is like breaking something in a store; you have to keep it afterward.

  2. thegarysingh permalink

    Damn, this is the best blog post I’ve read in a month. A1.

  3. I don’t finish a lot of books. I don’t even start more books than I don’t finish. I probably have 300 books on my kindle, and I have probably read less than 100 of them. Maybe less than 50.

    I have a lot of books that I intend to read, but during my rare spare time I seem to find myself playing Jetpack Joyride or Plants vs Zombies instead.

    • Maybe that’s the next thing that could be measured by Kindle, books that people purchase and then never even start. I would love to see THAT list.

  4. If and when I do read ebooks (not a lot), I highlight a lot just so I can find it again. It’s one of the few perks of going digital, I think.

  5. I finish approximately 98.5% of books I start. Which is why I probably don’t start too many, since the pressure to finish it would be suffocating.
    And I know I have finished the Hawking book, because I actually made some kind of “read together, finish together” pact for this book with a friend of mine. This effectively doubled the pressure, and I had no choice. But I don’t think she finished the book, though.

    • If you finish 98.5% of books that you read, and 98.5% of book readers finish The Goldfinch, what would happen if you read The Goldfinch? Maybe your book reading friend could finish it too.

  6. Did anyone here finish “The Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand? I tried thrice and failed! I know the book is a classic though, no offense.

    • You should try the audio version, if you’re in to audiobooks.

      • I don’t know. I’d think listening to Atlas Shrugged would make it worse, unless the reader had a great voice. Audiobooks can go either way, depending on who’s reading. But that’s another topic.

    • Yep, I am one of those strange characters who actually finished Atlas Shrugged. I had to find out what all those vile epithets hurled at that novel were really all about. Although certainly not among my favorite novels, I didn’t find it nearly as bad as some people claim.

      • Oh my good lord! You certainly have more strength of will than I do! I started it, didn’t hate it or anything, but it’s just so daunting–and I’ve read Les Miserables! Now, what about Ulysses?

  7. As if anyone ever finished “Infinite Jest” … I don’t believe that for a second!

    • I don’t know anybody who has finished Infinite Jest, but I know people who finish books like that, so it could theoretically happen. At least, they tell me they finish books like that. Maybe they’re pretending too.

  8. I almost always finish reading a book that i have started. I don’t highlight though, i always get so carried away by the story that highlighting would bring the fun out of it. I never lie about finishing a book, most people who know me should know that when i don’t finish a book it was unbearably boring

  9. I’m usually a book finisher. But Les Miserables cured me of that. I was about 100pages from the end when Jean Val Jean took Marius into the sewer. Whereupon Hugo exclaimed “The reader will forgive the author this transgression … He proceeded to describe ad nauseum, the Paris sewer system. This reader did not forgive–she closed the book tightly and went on with other books.

    • Ha ha! That’s why I love Classics Illustrated. I always knew who Jean Val Jean without having to read a 1,000 page book. If that unforgiveable transgression was only a 100 pages from the end, I’m surprised you didn’t just go ahead and finish. To me, if you get within 100 pages of finishing Les Miserables, you should take credit for finishing it.

      • It was quite freeing, actually, to allow myself to not finish. Since then I have not finished many books. Usually I go back to them when I am in a more appropriate mood.

        But I’ll take credit for Les Miz!

    • I’m surprised you managed to forgive the hundred or so pages on the battle of Waterloo…was there a point to that? I still have a bookmark stubbornly poised about half-way through my copy, but it’s been 8 or 9 months since I opened it!!!

      • I’d forgotten about that — I read it (almost!) about 18 years ago … I visited Waterloo about 15 years ago. It was a memorable travel fail. I wrote a funny post about it (which I will spare you from — I’m on my phone and can’t link). But Hugo didn’t help me understand the significance any more than the battlefield folks.

  10. I always finished books, no matter how tedious. That was until I read Joyce’s Ulysses. I managed to get through The Odyssey (and even enjoy it) but trying to read passed the first 50 pages of that whopper tends to make me drift off.

    • Ulysses probably shattered a lot of people’s reading habits. I wonder how readers highlight stream-of-consciousness.

      • Not very well, I’d imagine. I don’t mind stream of consciousness, but the lack of punctuation is a bit concerning

  11. I have a 50 page rule. I let myself abandon books if by 50 pages I’m not seeing it. But once I make it past 50, I will power through to the end come hell or high water.

    • I think you’re onto something. If I make it to page 50 in a book, I’ll usually finish it because I want to… unless it’s page 50 of a 1,000 page book. Then maybe page 100 is a better indicator. 50 pages or 10%, whichever comes second. I don’t know if that 10% is a good addition to your rule; I just made it up.

  12. I wonder if people just give up highlighting after a certain point. I highlight sometimes, but not that much. Just if I find a good quote I want to use later.

    • I don’t know if readers get tired of highlighting or if most of the good sentences that are worth highlighting are frontloaded toward the beginning of most books. I don’t highlight, so I can’t speak for the mentality of the highlighters (as in… those readers who highlight, not actual highlighters).

  13. You made laugh in a good way : D, I’m the kind of guy who try to finish every book that start, because I think a bad book can teach a lot of how to not write one and I want to be a writer ( :

    • I was taught as a kid to finish whatever I started, but I have a tough time applying that to books (except when I was required to read them for classes).

  14. I didn’t know people highlight parts of a book. I just read the book. If the sentence is significant I remember it. Why would people highlight? How strange you would want to dislike Gillian Flynn. Did she say you had a stupid hat? I have read at least one of her books and she is brilliant. And of course George W. Bush is the dumb one. Remember, he thought he was from Texas, even had a fake accent and played dress-up like a cowboy. This is seldom brought up but it is the most indicative feature of his being a dumb bunny. I liked your post, very thought provoking.

    • In my defense, I didn’t want to dislike Gillian Flynn. It’s just that Gone Girl had been on the bestseller’s list for so long and it would never leave, and it started to annoy me whenever I checked the list. It was my fault; I shouldn’t have kept checking the bestseller’s list. I finally decided to be the last person to read it, and so I did, and I liked it.

  15. The only things I ever want to highlight in kindle books are typo’s. Especially the free books. Some of those are very hard to read. I wish I could highlight typo’s and plot issues and send it back to the author.

    • If you wanted to mention the mistakes in the reviews on Amazon (or other book selling sites), you could do that. Most e-book authors appreciate the feedback, even if it mentions mistakes (I don’t know if that’s true; I just made it up).

  16. I highlight like it’s a profession. Finding phrases and whole sections that speak to you is like finding out you had one last cigarette when you were certain you had none. (or chocolate I don’t know). I feel like reading is developing a relationship with a book. Highlighting is just collecting the parts that you want to keep within yourself. But I don’t use Kindle, it’s like actual highlighter to paper, but only the ones I know I’ll read over again and rediscover. ( i hope that made sense, I am so so tired)

    • You made sense (even though I don’t smoke and don’t eat a lot of chocolate, but I know what you mean). Maybe if you didn’t highlight so much, you wouldn’t be so tired. But I don’t highlight, and I’m still tired, so maybe that’s not it (or I’d be even more tired if I highlighted).

  17. I totally don’t highlight either! So much easier to breeze through books that way. Great post! Thanks for sharing!

  18. If you want to read The Goldfinch, go ahead. (I know nobody who has attempted.) Where do you get your percentages? I note it is not 98.6, so none of those people must be alive.
    What I like is when a writer constructs a paragraph, makes it long so it’s not noticeable and then puts a sentence or sentences in parentheses. (All the greats do that.) Paratheses replace footnotes, and most of the text within the brackets is not needed. (No reader needs to know extraneous facts about the lineage of a supposed family heirloom)
    I believe Virginia Woolf liked parentheses (in her books they are also not needed). She used them more and more until she mercifully went for a swim in the Thames.

    • I got my percentages from the first link in my blog post, but the professor who figured out this whole Hawkings Index admits that’ it’s not a precise number. Maybe he just made up his own statistic (I do that too sometimes, but I always admit it). SOMEBODY has read The Goldfinch. It’s been on enough bestseller’s lists for a while.

  19. I never highlight in books or on my kindle (and it annoys me that my kindle shows how many people have already highlighted sentences I have no intention of highlighting). I have no problem admitting that certain great works of literature bored the pants off me (I’m looking at you ‘Moby Dick’) but I rarely put a book aside ‘for good’, as there’s always a chance I might be ready to try something again when I’m in a different frame of mind.

  20. I think I have 5 books that I started this year that I have yet to finish…it’s embarrassing too because I tend to announce on my blog that I’m doing such-and-such read-along and then I don’t finish.

    That statistic about The Goldfinch is mind boggling, and I am in that small minority that still hasn’t finished it. I got to 33% or so on my Kindle, and my attention started to fail. I have since finished 2 other books. It’s not a bad read – it just keeps going on and on. I’m not sure what to expect or where it’s going. I’ll return to it soon enough. It’s one of those books that you can return to and immediately figure out where you are. I hope you like it, if you end up picking it up…

    • If you don’t finish The Goldfinch, then just highlight something on the last few pages of it so that it looks like you finished it. That way, you won’t bring down that 98.5% number down. I wonder how many people it would take NOT finishing The Goldfinch to bring the number under 90%.

  21. lexc13 permalink

    Great post, very entertaining. I tend to finish most books that I read. Depending on the book I may force myself through it just for some sense of accomplishment I guess. Then there are times if I can’t get past the first couple of pages I will never open the book again. Though one time I did revisit a book I thought I couldn’t read and it was actually very good. I just skipped by the beginning stuff that bored me, it was the prologe and had little to do with the action of the book.
    As for highlighting, I don’t do it except for school maybe and even then very sparingly. I still don’t have a kindle or any other ereader but I think I’d do it even less then.

  22. I don’t highlight, but since almost everything on my Kindle was written before 1900, I’m guessing no one would be comparing the stats anyway. I usually read all the way through a book, but the 5 volumes of Edgar Allen Poe’s work seem to be going downhill here in the middle of volume 4.

  23. “since almost everything on my Kindle was written before 1900…”

    I think it’s great that almost everything you read was written before the technology you’re reading it on was created (or even thought of). I’d actually be interested in the stats for how far readers get when they’re highlighting stuff written before 1900 and then compare it to how far readers get for stuff written after 2010.

  24. All the books I am currently not finishing are lying in bed with me. It’s like sleeping on a library…

    • Are books comfortable to sleep on? I wouldn’t think so, but I could be wrong. I thought it would be satisfying to throw a book across the room, but I was wrong. Maybe I’m wrong about lying with books too.

  25. anaivefan permalink

    Reblogged this on Michelle Vee and commented:
    I must agree guilty. I have loads of unfinished books in my Kindle. If it doesn’t interest me, it just doesn’t work for me. If I must read the book for school or for a personal goal, I cheat and read tons of reviews.

    I do highlight but it’s almost as I didn’t because it does not matter how many times I highlight, take note out of it, or even screenshot it— I won’t go back to read that part again. I simply do not go back on a book; I read it all over again, or I forget about checking those highlights.

    Michelle Vee

  26. Reblogged this on Socrates Underground and commented:
    I think there’s something masochistic in forcing one’s self to finish reading a book–unless your freshman English teacher assigns it! (I’m a freshman English teacher.) I don’t even always finish reading the blurb on the back of a book if I’m not engaged! Top that!

    And highlighting? I don’t highlight. OK, when I went to college, we didn’t have nifty gadgets like Kindles. I’m going to reveal my age now: I took paper and pen notes. I copied page numbers and line notations.

    Now, I’m with you. I CAN read deeply meaningful literature, but I confess to enjoying brain candy, and who needs to highlight the new Charlaine Harris vampire novel? Now, as a high school English teacher, I tell my students to highlight–but not in the school books, only in their own personal copies, Mr. Superintendent, if you see this!

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