Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Keep Those Novels Simple, Stupid

Today I became aware of the fact that Amazon compiles statistics on the readability, complexity and length of some of its titles. This got me to thinking: how do the books that I like compare to the rest of Western literature? As my profile shows, my top 20 favourite fiction books are as follows:

1 Ulysses - James Joyce
2 King Lear - William Shakespeare
3 Paradise Lost - John Milton
4 Nineteen Eighty-Four - George Orwell
5 Neuromancer - William Gibson
6 The Trial - Franz Kafka
7 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley
8 Money - Martin Amis
9 Catch-22 - Joseph Heller
10 Vernon God Little - DBC Pierre
11 The Man Who Was Thursday - D.K. Chesterton
12 The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald
13 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
14 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
15 Atomised - Michel Houellebecq
16 The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger
17 Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll
18 The Last Temptation of Christ - Nikos Kazantzakis
19 Waiting For Godot - Samuel Beckett
20 Cloudstreet - Tim Winton

The table below gives the median values for all of the top 20 books that I could find statistics on, and the percentage of fiction books which are below that value:


Median Value of Top 20 Books

% of Fiction Books Below Median Value


Fog Index


37% are easier

Flesch Index


37% are easier

Flesch-Kincaid Index


25% are easier


Complex Words


48% have less

Words Per Sentence


26% have less




54% have less



55% have less



58% have less

So what have we learnt? Apparently I like books that are on the readable side, and not too complex. It may be that I’m a simple guy, but I’m going to take a stab that my preferences are fairly representative of the human population. I also seem to like books that are slightly on the longer side. In fact, if you consider my three favourite books as outliers – ‘Paradise Lost’ being an epic poem, ‘King Lear’ being a play, and ‘Ulysses’ being whatever it is – then the next four highest books – ‘1984’, ‘Neuromancer’, ‘The Trial’, and ‘Brave New World’ – are all pretty typical of my preferences. (Three of those are also science-fiction books set in the Earth’s future, but that’s a subject for another post.)

Since I’ve been struggling with Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ recently, I thought it would be interesting to see how that compares. Unsurprisingly, it’s more ‘unreadable’ and more complex than most of my favourite titles, although not overly so (‘Paradise Lost’ and ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ have it well beat in those departments). Where the trouble seems to be is length; it’s about 4 times as long as the median value of my top 20. Maybe that’s why I’ve only managed to get a quarter of the way through it.


Ludicrousity said...

I've only just started reading for pleasure again. I'm on book two now! 2 in a week and a bit is amazing seeing as I hadn't read a book since about Feb.

I love King Lear! It's my fav shakespeare. I love 1984 too.

Troy Wheatley said...

Good work! Have fun reading!