How much do readers read?

On average, fewer than half of the books tested were finished by a majority of readers. Most readers typically give up on a book in the early chapters. Women tend to quit after 50 to 100 pages, men after 30 to 50. Only 5 percent of the books Jellybooks tested were completed by more than 75 percent of readers. Sixty percent of books fell into a range where 25 percent to 50 percent of test readers finished them. Business books have surprisingly low completion rates.

That is from Alexandra Alter and Karl Russell at the NYT.  There are good visuals at the link, and note this is data from ebooks, not physical copies.


I find business books are often not very information-dense and start to feel repetitive after only ~100 pages, even good ones.

Agree 100%. Most business books should be essays, once you have read the introduction, you pretty much understand the point and know you're going to re-read it over and over again.

Yep. Once I read one called "Launching the innovation Renaissance", and it was just a pamphlet, repeated five times for page count.

Too many business books are basically high-end non-free business cards by "gurus" whose real business is charging people through the teeth to attend conferences of dubious value (excluding networking benefits, and anyways, it's all tax deductible). Thus, they cannot tell all, rather, they have to be highly motivating and exude much promise for what can be learned at such conferences (e.g., a rough sketch of how it's an amazingly promising thing to learn about, followed by some testimonial about how someone who learned about it in more detail at your conference wen on to make lots of money).

I hope they were careful methodologically. Just checking my Kindle, I have "not finished" just about every non-fiction book I started over the last year. Because I don't read the index and the ads for other books that bulk up the last 100 pages. I don't finish everything I start (know when to quit!) but I know I finished many books for which the progress bar is barely more than halfway across.

"Here is how it works: the company gives free e-books to a group of readers, often before publication. "

My wife can't resist downloading lots of free e-books when they're temporarily on-sale. She seldom reads many of them and seldom finishes the ones she does. I think observing the analytics for "free e-books" is probably misleading.

I read many thousands of books to the end before running into Don Quixote and giving up half way through. In retrospect, I think I was not intellectually or historically aware enough at the time to appreciate its quirks, but then again, I've never had the remotest interest in trying again. Years later, Brothers Karmazov joined the club almost 3/4 of the way through.

I haven't read much fiction for a very long time. If the book isn't worth finishing, per se, it's almost always worth at least skimming the first couple paragraphs of all remaining chapters to look for hints of anything worth a closer look, or for something more promising, skimming the first sentence of each paragraph looking for anything interesting/new. The closing chapter usually has some interesting insights or perspectives. This is a lot easier with a physical book than an e-reader. The main problem is that if you're widely read, most stuff seems like a rehash on old stuff.

I gave up on Guantanamo Diary shortly in - it was just too depressing.

Business books: Outside of textbooks with "established" principles, I've never encountered a business book that was actually worth reading, and after reading a handful of highly recommended ones have never looked back. Harvard Business Review covers a lot of interesting related topics though. I imagine there are some worthwhile compilations of well-narrated case studies ...

It seems that contemporary society regards reading a book as technologically retrograde in comparison to acquiring information from television or computers. Television, more than anything else, has led to a decrease in reading and consequently a comparative lack of general knowledge with previous generations. Chances are the average American knows virtually nothing about Poe, Melville, Twain, Kipling, etc., much less really important writers like Spengler, Toynbee, von Mises, de Jouvenal and Rothbard because they're never the subject of television programming.

Most writers/artists are not of any value, everyone has there own time period were they have some relevance and that's about it.

The 'average American' knows nothing of Poe, Melville, Twain, Kipling because most people are not literary or intellectual hobbyists and they forget what they read when they were 15 (which may have been these four or may have been Shakespeare, Dickens, Scott FizGerald, and Tennessee Williams, taught when I was 15).

While we're at it, fringe economists are not 'really important writers'. 'Really important' might be Thomas Aquinas, but that's rather heavygoing for high school students.

I believe the expression is that movies are today's novels, but novels are about characters whereas movies are about stories. Maybe. I know that my (nearly old) eyes have difficulty with books because the print is often so small. That's the case with a (the) James Madison biography I've had for years and tried again and again to read but the strain on my eyes makes the effort unpleasant. Hence, e-books (the font is adjustable), which is how I've read several biographies of Washington and Jefferson and how I read (most of) Piketty's opus on inequality, among other books. I've had a kindle since they were first introduced, but now that kindle books can be read on an i-pad, I seldom use the kindle. That is the explanation why so many e-books aren't finished: unlike the early version of the kindle, there are distractions on the i-pad, including e-mail, i-messages, facetime, the internet, and all those apps I have loaded on it. Indeed, if I am determined to finish an e-book, that's when I use my kindle (an older version with fewer distractions).

I believe the expression is that movies are today’s novels

This is largely why I read fiction only rarely. A movie takes less of my time, and better constructs the world for me than my own imagination of descriptive text can do.

See Mortimer Adler and Charles van Doren on this point: not every book deserves a line by line reading, and, as a rule, books should not simply be picked up and read in this manner beginning to end in sequence. Note in particular their procedure for 'inspectional reading', which is what most books merit.

Many years ago, Michael Kinsley had his research assistant go to a book store and place little tickets in some topical books on display telling the reader to contact The New Republic at the following phone number and collect $5. He said they got not one call about the tickets, either from the vendors or from any customer. IIRC, one of the books was Laurence Barrett's Gambling with History. His conclusion was that books such as this exist to be reviewed by people like those on his staff and are seldom read in toto. Nor should they be. That's a topical book by a journalist who knows what his sources tell him. Nothing more.

Now turn to libraries. One wag called them great cemeteries of the world's mediocre literature. Librarians who are tracking these things can tell you how little much of their collection is ever touched.

This. In college I remember taking books out of the library that were untouched for long time. The paper card on the book cover had the date stamp when I took it out and the last one was 20 or 30 years before.

Today, when bar codes are placed on book covers it would be really easy to collect statistics on book usage in a library. Perhaps these statistics will never be public because they'll kill the romantic idea of a library.

I can introduce you to someone who collected and collated such statistics in the proto-internet era. Books were not as severely affected by digital technology as print periodicals, but they were affected. In his library, ca. 1998, about 30% of the monographs purchased were untouched in the first five years they were part of the collection.

Not a clue on how significant this effect is, but the official record is a minimum bound on how many people used the book. In uni, I officially took out perhaps a dozen book throughout all years of study, but consulted many hundreds of others while I was in the library.

A major reason for developing this habit is that I'm pretty bad about getting library books back on time. Also, in academic libraries and research, unless you're reading a true classic and want to engage in in-depth reading, mostly likely you're just checking the table of contents, reading the intro in some depth (this is where you'll find most of the quotable quotes), then skipping to the 1-2 chapters which are actually relevant to what you're working on - hence, hardly worth the effort of carrying it home and back again.

I don't imagine very many people at all would take the $5 offer as credible even if they saw it, and even if they did, would assume some catch like actually you're going to have to do something for it. It would probably be a lot easier to test in the internet age, for example placing a $20 coupon in the books for a popular restaurant nearby the bookstore, specifying "no expiry date", including a unique identifying number to the coupon, and explaining the reason for the offer so they would take it as credible. The whole curiosity of the matter might be good for business for the restaurant, and so they might even participate for $0 and chalk it up as a marketing expense.

re:"telling the reader to contact The New Republic at the following phone number and collect $5. He said they got not one call about the tickets, either from the vendors or from any customer."

At work, I wondered if what I considered a dubious monthly write-up was being read. (I thought most people were just looking at charts and tables like me.) Inserted in one of the bullets I offered a free coke to anyone in the office or field that read it. Didn't get a call. So I quit worrying about the write-up.

Tyler, how many books do you finish?

I wonder why novel serialization peaked in the 19th century. The publisher and the author received honest and effective reader feedback every week through the sales of magazines or newspapers. If publishers are looking for the new Dickens, Dumas or Balzac perhaps they could try the system that worked great for these guys.

I didn't even finish this blog post.

The secret of Kindle's success: people buy/download lots of books that they never quite get around to reading?

I was a devourer of books in my youth and would finish every one that I picked up as a glutton cleans every plate. Then life, work, and family took precedence. I am retired now and aware that I will never read every good book out there. Also, there are lots that deserve a second, even third or more reading. Consequently, if a book doesn't come up to my standards, it gets abandoned. My standards are a little idiosyncratic, but I am not in debt to anyone and read for my own purposes. I am not anti-intellectual and do read some difficult works.
BTW, I am having trouble finding Latin American novels that I like and welcome suggestions.

Same. Or at least similar. Plus unfinished ebooks feel like they are "in the bank" for later.

Eerily familiar, but not retired yet. Someday it will be nice to get up and know I can spend all day reading for pleasure.

As an aside, last night I finished "The Orion Plan" by Mark Alpert. I should not have done. The premise was at the level of SciFi channel productions. The characters' internal dialog was juvenile. The ending was both unoriginal and unsatisfying. The only positive vibe in the whole thing was the constantly declining hope that the book might end up somewhere interesting.

So, no. My youthful, Puritan, belief that books should be finished was wrong.

Middle-aged, full-time employed, married woman and I have read books voraciously my entire life. Fiction, non-fiction, high-brow, low-brow ... I read them all and I read them all to the end.

Most of them? Meh ... at best I got the mental relief of checking out of my real life for a bit. But there are those that are re-read. And then purchased in hard copy (post intro of e-readers) so I never have to fear Amazon clawing them back.

One thing I never waste time on? Surveys or helping marketers collect info about me (so no, my devices are toggled off to share data). Another thing I never waste time on? What the NYT thinks about books; with their shady bestseller list practices one wonders about their survey abilities.

MR authors (whom I've met when Buchanan was still alive and my PhD chair sent me to George Mason to meet *his* PhD chair, i.e. Buchanan) and its readers should surely be too smart to buy into "data gathered from people given free e-books in exchange for a review and their data" equals reality, all readers, etc. Instead, it represents only the habits of those who are looking to get something for nothing, and those who delight in being power reviewers.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I am just an old-school curmudgeon. Maybe those younger than me are all Cliffs Notes YouTubers who can't be bothered to spend time with anything or treasure the written word. After all, are Cliffs Notes even a thing anymore?

But I don't think I'm wrong. Bad data from suspect collection methods do not equal a finding. Or rather, the finding only says something about readers hooked into the freebie for a review market which we all already knew was not a reliable marker of much beyond greed and self-aggrandizement.

I find biographies much more exciting than novels. Try Chernow's Hamilton.

I believe reading/learning is very important part in life; we got to keep on doing these sorts of things in order to grow. I am mainly doing Forex trading and for that I have read several E-Book while thanks to my broker OctaFX, I do a lot more help which is through their educational system, it is quite awesome and makes trading fairly easy which means I am able to work really nicely and that makes me feel very much comfortable.

Comments for this post are closed