Do you ever worry that you’re not reading enough? My bookshelves are full of books that I keep telling myself that one day I will eventually read, but… you know… I have stuff to to do first. Even worse, I’ll often start a sufficiently weighty tome fully intent on enhancing my brain with the information contained within, but inevitably, after a few minutes of reading my fingers start to twitch and somehow I’m looking at Twitter, and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century will never be opened again.
Every time I glance at my “Currently Reading” list on GoodReads, I feel an enormous sense of shame when I remember that I still haven’t technically finished Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature. Yes, the first half of the book was brilliant and persuasive - but once it started getting into the neuroscience, I started getting distracted and… it too was left idle on the coffee table. Obviously I can’t just file it away on the shelf - that would be admitting defeat. By leaving it within arm’s reach, I tell myself, I can still tell myself that technically, I haven’t given up yet.
Surely this must happen for a lot of people, I thought. How many books must we start, secretly give up on, but never actually admit to ourselves that we’re never going to read?
Then it struck me. We can actually find this out, by analysing GoodReads data. We can find the books that people will never finish.
For this analysis, I first needed a sample of GoodReads users to work with, as the site has six million members, and even if I could get access to them, that would be a few too many for my computer to cope with. So to get the fairest sample possible, I simply scraped names from the “recent reviews” page on the site over the course of a couple of weeks. This also meant that I’d definitely be getting accounts that are still active, as the user is posting reviews, so any books sitting unread are more likely to be ones left awkwardly unfinished, rather than ignored by a dead account.
After scraping, I had a pool of around 30,000 users to play with, so I wrote some code to then go and download their “currently reading” lists. Taking out users who had their accounts set to private, I eventually ended up with data on the shelves of around 24,000 users - which feels large enough to start drawing conclusions from.
The next step was to calculate how long each book had been sat on the user’s virtual shelf: After all, I didn’t want to know what they were currently reading, I want to know what is gathering dust on their virtual coffee table still retaining the possibility of one day being reopened. So I filtered the data to only look at books that had been on the shelf for longer than a year. As let’s face it, with the best will in the world, even if your bookmark is planted somewhere in the middle of Ulysses, after a year of it sitting there, there isn’t a chance in hell that you’re actually going to finish it. (To be clear, some users have a manually created "didn't finish" virtual shelf - but this isn't consistent across all users, and in any case, I want the books that people do, genuinely, want to read - not ones they've stopped half way through because it was bad, which is why I'm doing it this way.)
And then, it was simply a case of counting up to see which books occurred most often. And happily, despite this not being a promotional wheeze for anything, the results were suitably clickbaity anyway.
So what books are people refusing to admit they have given up on?
Top of the table is A Game Of Thrones, the first of George RR Martin’s books. Clearly after getting into Game of Thrones on TV, loads of people must have thought to try reading the novels… but then later realised that reading actual words on the page isn’t really for them. Perhaps the dragons and the bums aren’t quite as exciting when they’re only described rather than visualised?
Second, is Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton that spawned the musical Hamilton. And this one makes a lot of sense too: the most recent cover for the book boasts about its links to Lin Manuel Miranda’s smash-hit, but once readers get inside they presumably discover that the book isn’t catchy raps at all… it’s actually a rather dry story about 18th century monetary policy (I still think the musical should have focused more on this).
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman comes in third. The book itself was a hit and heavily marketed around the time when Kahneman won the Nobel Prize. It’s a permanent fixture in the “smart thinking” section of bookshops. But despite this, it isn’t the easiest of reads - so no wonder people tried it, and then got distracted. I’d probably recommend Richard Thaler’s Misbehaving or Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project instead.
Fourth is… umm… The New Oxford American Dictionary?! I guess it does get a little predictable as it goes along. And then for the rest of the top ten there’s Pride and Prejudice, along with novels All The Light We Cannot See, Infinite Jest and 1984 - all of which are definitely celebrated and worthy and you can easily see why people at least wanted to read them. But… man… reading tweets or watching fail compilations on YouTube is less brain-intensive, right?
And finally, the list contains two self-help books, Quiet and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Why did people stop part way through? Did they get all of the help they need?
Whatever the case, here’s the full Top 10. I’ve included the total count of people who have given up on it out of our massive pool in brackets after:
- A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1) - George R.R. Martin (31)
- Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (30)
- Thinking, Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman (20)
- The New Oxford American Dictionary - Erin McKean (20)
- Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen (20)
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking - Susan Cain (19)
- The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing - Marie Kondo (16)
- All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doer, (15)
- Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace (15)
- 1984 - George Orwell (15)
So what’s the lesson here? Probably that you should get a grip and just give 1984 another go - not only is it really good, it’s really short too. I promise!
James O’Malley tweets as @Psythor.