Conventionally, the most common way of gauging the most popular books in America has been looking at the New York Times’ bestsellers list.
When you read on a Kindle, you can highlight passages, the same way you might highlight text in a physical book. The passages you highlight are all collected in one place, accessible either on the reader or a computer.
But Amazon also collects data on what its readers highlight most. The resulting most-highlighted lists are a fascinating record of reading as a whole.
There are some limitations to the data: it’s only for people who read on Kindles, and use them for highlighting. The data is extremely heavily skewed towards American readers (Amazon isn’t saying whether they include international data, but it looks like they don’t). And some books don’t lend themselves to highlighting quite as much, which is why many of even Amazon’s bestsellers don’t appear on the lists.
But it’s also true that some books get bought and end up on bestseller lists, but aren’t actually read — whereas these lists are a terrific record of what we might nowadays call reader engagement. They reveal not just what books are read, but what part of books are read — and even tell us a little about what people are thinking about as they do their highlighting.
Here are seven things the lists tell us about Americans reading today.