Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Kindle's Popular Highlights: Intertextual Communication or Pain in the Ass Distraction?

It seems that ever since Amazon released its Kindle and breathed new life into the languishing e-book market, every innovation and addition to its now iconic e-reader is received with the same polarized reaction that ushered in the original device. Angry bibliophiles will lambast it as another assault on the sacred position of the printed word while loyal techies and futurists will hail the newest augmentation as another step towards a bright digital utopia. While many readers, both of digital and printed content, tend to fall somewhere in the middle of these impassioned extremes, it none the less makes for interesting reading to see how elements of either side of the spectrum are reacting to one of Amazon's latest additions to its Kindle platform: Popular Highlights.
This new attempt at augmenting the act of reading, first introduced last year, allows readers to see passages that have been highlighted by others who have purchased the book. Once a few poignant or evocative sentences gets at least three people to note it, it will appear in all Kindle books sold with a little dotted line under relevant portion. You can even click on the highlighted section to see exactly how many people found this passage notable. Kindle owners can then log on to Amazon and keep track of their various highlighted sections and see what other people have noted. Currently the most popular passage, which has been marked by approximately 3,500 readers as of this writing, comes from Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone:

           "The key to happiness is to own your own slippers, own who
           you are, own who you are, own your family, own the talents
           you have, and own the ones you don't. If you keep
           saying your slippers aren't yours, then you'll die searching,
           you'll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more.
           Not only our actions, but also our omissions, becomes
           our destiny."

Malcolm Gladwell’s Outlier takes second place with the following excised bit of wisdom: “Those three things—autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward—are, most people agree, the three qualities that work has to have if it is to be satisfying.” Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray Love, dominates the Popular Highlights section with 6 of the top 25 coming from the popular memoir.

Reaction to Popular Highlights over the preceding months has been mixed. The New York Time’s Virginia Heffernan noted that the experience was “odd” and found it a reminder that even when reading, “you are still connected.” An article on MSNBC.com wondered at the privacy risks of Amazon monitoring your reading habits and the status of books after purchase, while a post at Tomorrow’s Book described the new feature as, “a little jarring, to say the least, as well as an awkward attempt at social networking.”

Perhaps the most acerbic condemnation of popular highlights came in early March during an NPR segment in which writer, scholar, and critic, Andrei Codrescu, discussed how seeing other people’s annotations compromised both his reading and the integrity of his purchase. He stated that, “When somebody offers perception of what's important, something moronic, usually, which is why I always prefer buying books new so I could make my own moronic marks.” He continued by stating that the Kindle’s new feature, “which will tell you how many morons have underlined before so that not only you do not own the new book you paid for, the entire experience of reading is shattered by the presence of a mob that agitates inside your text like strangers in a train station.”

Defenders of the Kindle have been quick to point out to the various critics that Popular Highlights can be turned off with little hassle – something it appears the many angry Kindle users may not have noticed based on some of the comments found online. However, as Heffernan concludes in her article when discussing feature’s off-switch:

            “[T]here’s a genie-in-the-bottle problem here. As with
            many things on the Web, once you’ve glimpsed popular
            highlights, it’s hard to unglimpse them. You get curious
            about what other readers think, especially with a book
            like “Freedom,” which bookstore windows and airplane
            waiting lounges would have you believe everyone is thinking
            about. Reading, after all, is only superficially solitary; in
            fact, it’s a form of intensive particpation in language
            and the building of common culture."

Fans of the new feature on the other hand argue that the ability to read and share highlights offers a new dimension to reading. Many of the message boards and forums speak positively of the ability to see what others have found fascinating. For some, it offers a type of intertextual communication where readers are able to communicate with each other, connecting both with the text and the like-minded consumers.

In his essay collection, The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, scholar and Director of Harvard University Library Robert Darnton discusses the history of commonplace books in an essay called “The Mysteries of Reading.” He explains that, “Whenever they [the reader] came across a pithy passage, they copied it into a notebook under an appropriate heading, adding observations made in the course of daily life.” He goes on to discuss that the commonplace books have been of inestimable value to researchers and scholars interested in the reading habits of important historical figures and the works that influenced their ideas. Kindle’s Popular Highlights serves a similar and more immediate function for readers today. For those interested, this feature allows us to see not only what the population is reading, but specifically what passages they find profound and interesting.

Additionally this feature may hopefully lead to a renewed interest for some readers in the actual act of highlighting and noting favored passages. A recent episode of the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast discussed the future of marginalia in the digital era and mourned the loss of annotating books with underlined passages that could be read and appreciated by future readers. While it is unlikely that Popular Highlights is suddenly going to instill a desire to begin underlining every significant sentence or passage in readers, it is possible that some might react to the open invitation. I for one freely admit that while reading Spike Jonze’s The Wild Things – the first book I purchased after Amazon added Popular Highlights, I found myself intrigued by what others readers had decided to note. As I read, I began to underline sections that I found significant as a type of reply to the other people I was connecting. Although I know that the other people I was “communicating” with may never get my message unless they decided to re-read, and the my contributions to the dialogue would never be shared unless two other people also decided they were of sufficient interest, it still added a new dimension to the reading experience. It wasn’t revelatory, it wasn’t life-changing, but it also wasn't a vicious unwanted intrusion into solitary pursuit.

Like the majority of American students I was assigned to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in high school. I had a used copy and many important sections were underlined and annotated; fingerprints in ink and pencil of the dozens of other students who throughout the years had temporarily been responsible for the same book I was assigned. One passage in particular was underlined, starred, and highlighted by several of the people who had that particular copy before me; “For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing.”

While I like to think that I was astute enough to have caught the significance of this particular passage without the aid of the multiple students who had noted it before me, I can’t be sure that had it not been for their efforts this short sentence, which I find even more poignant then the oft-quoted closing lines of Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, might have been lost to me. It is with this in mind that I think that perhaps someone might find resonance with some “pithy passage” that I find notable. Furthermore, after checking out the book’s page on Amazon’s website and seeing that of the hundreds of people who have highlighted sections from The Great Gatsby no one has yet marked this particular line, I might have to buy the book and share it with my fellow readers.

Whether you love the Kindle or despise it as an assault on everything you love about reading, it is clear the Popular Highlights is not worth getting overly riled up about. In the era of websites like Good Reads and Library Thing where readers can share their favorite books with friends, write reviews the anyone can read, and see what writers like Neil Gaiman are reading, this only seems like another logical step in the direction reading seems to be going. It has a few interesting virtues that might intrigue readers, and for others who want to preserve the solitary nature of reading they don’t have to participate. In fact, they can always just turn it off.


  1. The highlights could be very useful for lazy students reading textbooks, but otherwise the default setting should be off as that seems like it could be quite annoying. If that is done to a paper book it's considered devalued.

  2. Sometimes I strongly relate to Andrei Codrescu and his view of the Popular Highlights. Sometimes I like the Popular Highlights, it makes me pause and pay attention to a particular passage where I may not have before. Sometimes I don't understand why the highlighted section is popular (actually, most times). Sometimes I feel a little guilty highlighting a cheesy, sentimental portion of my e-book. I worry (and secretly hope) that I may be the one highlighter that pushes that section over into the "Popular Highlights". BTW, how many times must a passage be highlighted before it is considered popular? - Angela Dravland

  3. Angie - thank you for both of your comments. It takes three people to highlight a specific passage before it will start showing up. Best,
    - S