Saturday 25 October 2014

Ulysses... and the other books we can’t finish

Emma Jane Hade

Published 14/07/2014 | 02:30

We would rather wait for ‘Godot’ than finish the saga of ‘Ulysses’.

Groundbreaking research has confirmed that James Joyce’s challenging prose has put off the vast majority of modern readers from finishing the book.

But it is not just Joyce – many of us fail to finish the books we start, according to the research that gathered a new type of data, thanks to the major shift to e-readers.

It found just 2.9pc of readers who downloaded the great Irish literary tale ‘Ulysses' made it to the end.

Regarded as one of the country's greatest literary works, it also scored as the most unfinished book that Dr Jordan Ellenberg has analysed.

“Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the lowest of any novel I recorded,” the Madison resident said of the Joycean masterpiece.

But ‘Waiting for Godot' from Samuel Beckett stunned the American mathematician, as he calculated a “sky-high score of 58.6pc” of readers finishing the play.

Dr Ellenberg admitted he was surprised at this finding as ‘Waiting for Godot' is “just the kind of avant-garde high-literature you might expect people to purchase just for show”.

A more recent Irish tale which captured hearts around the world after it became a hit on the silver screen, ‘Philomena' from British journalist Martin Sixsmith, fared somewhere between the two, as 24.5pc of readers managed to make it to the end.

Other books that proved to be the ultimate page turners included the Pulitzer prize-winning ‘The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt, with 98.5pc of readers making it to end.

And ‘Catching Fire' by Suzanne Collins – the second instalment of the hit ‘Hunger Games’ movie series – managed to keep 43.4pc of readers turning the pages.

Surprisingly, just over a quarter of readers managed to brave their way to end of racy adult novel ‘Fifty Shades of Grey'.

The American maths prodigy and professor at the University of Winconsin has devised a new way of tracking the most common “non-reads”.

Through a simple calculation method that he has coined as the ‘Hawking Index', Dr Ellenberg uses the ‘popular highlights' tool on the Kindle digital e-reader, which tells him the position of highlighted paragraphs on each page.

“Of course, we can't reliably figure from such a small dataset the actual number of people finishing the book – it's just rough measure that's good for comparing one book to another,” he said.

The ‘How Not To Be Wrong' author has used his method to calculate that one of the most unread books of the year is ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century' by Thomas Piketty, as just 2.4pc of readers made it to end.

Dr Ellenberg said: “My own book got 7.7pc, which I thought as pretty bad until I started looking at other books of popular science and found I was ahead of most.”

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