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Don't Read This: What Kindle's Highlights Tell Us About Popular Taste

Users of Amazon's e-reader, the Kindle, can not only highlight their favorite passages, they can see what everyone else is highlighting. University of Illinois linguist Dennis Baron ponders the consequences.

The New York Times reports that the Amazon Kindle is turning reading from an isolating activity into a social one.

Here's how: Kindle users are annotating what they read. Amazon then collects these annotations and reprints "the passages that are most highlighted by the millions of Kindle customers" on its "Popular Highlights" website.

Those who fear that computers are putting an end to "real" reading can relax. For the born-digital generation, it's just a hop, skip, and click from Facebook to "The Brothers Karamazov."

But don't start the party just yet, because it turns out that the Times report is misleading in a number of ways. For one thing, traditional printed books have never been just for loners, monks in their cells, scholars in their ivory towers, or codgers in their armchairs. Nor is it clear that ebooks attract only the hypersocial webcam generation, the inveterate bloggers and Tweeters who billboard their private lives, comment on news sites, or post on Amazon, TripAdvisor, and Zappo's.

Traditional readers aren't always sociopaths and e-readers aren't always hip. But more to the point, annotating books didn't begin with the invention of the highlighter in the 1970s, and readers shared their annotations long before Amazon thought to trademark the idea.

Reading, which creates a link between writer and reader, is inherently social rather than isolating. In addition, readers have always read aloud, both to themselves, in the days before silent reading became common, and to others, to pass the time, to educate, or to entertain an audience.

And reading is never a one-way communication from writer to reader. From the start, readers let their thoughts be known by annotating their books with pen or pencil. The books were often loaned, or handed down to other readers, who mulled over those annotations and added their own. It was common practice for readers to keep commonplace books, personal scrapbooks filled with their favorite notes, quotes, recipes, passages, and bits of wisdom. Sometimes these compilations of lore and knowledge were even published for a wider audience.

A fifteenth-century copy of Caxton's edition of the Legenda Aurea shows the annotations of several readers.

But even if we celebrate the Kindle's Popular Highlights not as a way to turn a solitary experience into a social one, but as a new and more efficient way to do what many readers have done before, sharing their private thoughts about reading, we might at least think twice before turning our highlights over to Amazon, whose primary goal is to learn everything it can about our tastes in reading, not to promote literacy, but to sell us as much stuff as possible.

There's also a privacy concern. In order to publish our favorite passages, Amazon must first track not just what we're reading (they do this when we download an ebook) but also our thoughts about our reading (they do this when we consent to have our highlights collected). And while Amazon insists that it strips off readers' names before aggregating their highlights, we should remember that somewhere deep in Amazon's database, there's a record of who we are and what parts of what we like to read we like best, information that we might rather keep to ourselves.

Amazon has already proved its power to reach into our Kindles and erase books that it doesn't think we should have, like bootleg copies of 1984, and in another case Amazon made it difficult if not impossible to search for and buy books dealing with homosexuality. Giving Amazon a list of our favorite passages is giving the world's largest bookseller a little more insight into our private lives. People may be happy to share with their friends on Facebook, but not everyone is willing to expose their literary taste to the whole World Wide Web.

But I have an even bigger concern about Kindle's "Popular Highlights," and that has nothing to do with Amazon's policies. According to Amazon, Popular Highlights "help[s] readers to focus on passages that are meaningful to the greatest number of people." But for me, outing Kindle readers' preferences turns out to be more disappointing than prurient: the top 25 most-highlighted passages of all time come from books I'd never want to read, and the next 25 favorite passages are no better.

These fifty passages come from a very small number of books, only twelve or thirteen, bestsellers rather than classics like Hamlet or The Brothers K. I've never even heard of most of these books, which teach the secrets of successful people or how to find spiritual well-being. There's also a novel which seems to have God as a major protagonist (no, it's not the Bible, which I have heard of), and another by Dan Brown (no, it's not The Da Vinci Code –- I actually read that, but hated it). Today's readers aren't annotating modern-day equivalents of The Golden Legend or Aristotle, and what's even worse, the passages in Kindle's Popular Highlights don't seem all that compelling.

To be fair, Kindle's most-popular-of-all-time passage no. 40 comes from the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, which I have heard of, though I've never read it. But most of these highlighted passages sound to me like extended versions of the predictably soppy, feel-good messages on greeting cards.

I've always felt that reading is a good thing, that reading anything at all is better than reading nothing, and that being a reading snob doesn't do anything to promote reading (I read reams of comic books as a child, and I still read plenty of stuff that others consider trash). But if Kindle's "Popular Highlights" is really an indicator of popular taste, then it might be better if reading became a solitary activity after all, and not a social one.

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Friday July 2nd 2010, 7:44 AM
Comment by: nannywoo (Wilmington, NC)
I seldom pick up a book without picking up a pencil and therefore like to own actual, physical books whenever possible rather than checking out library books or reading on a screen. I like the feel of the pencil in my hand, as if the ideas are going up my arm into my brain. HATE highlighters and hate to wind up with a used book a less-than-insightful reader has highlighted. I find other people's notes distracting; I like to think for myself. However, it can be a treat to read a book a friend has annotated and enjoy the "conversation" or even to reread something I've scribbled in and talk to my earlier self. My guess is that some of those books on Amazon's list were annotated by students going for "right" answers or others looking for similarly "right" answers to life's questions. Sometimes the fuse that lights that explosion in the reader's mind is in a footnote or in an apt metaphor that has nothing to do with main ideas or right answers. As an avid new user of Face Book, I'm experiencing those explosions almost every day, and I wonder how book clubs on social networks would work--not computerized "best seller" lists of annotations but real people really reading together? Back to sitting in a circle and reading together! That would be joy. Joyce Hollingsworth
Friday July 2nd 2010, 8:27 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Thanks, Professor Baron, for sharing your thoughts on sharing passages, which I didn't know was happening. It strikes me that this phenomenon is bringing words into the world that music has long been forced to inhabit, the world of charts and hyped distinctions between genres for commercial ends: classical and pop, for example.

No doubt one day Amazon will see the commercial potential in issuing 'classic highlight charts' (when sufficient readers of Dickens, Austen, Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, etc, are willing to share their highlights - perhaps Amazon will think of an incentive for them to share?), as well as 'chicklit charts', 'self-help charts', 'trashy novels charts' and the like.

This phenomenon will also bring books into the modern world of fast food and soundbites. Scanning a collection of Kindle highlights while scoffing a burger and/or watching news highlights is more appropriate to the way we live than trying to read a book from cover to cover.

So 'passage sharing charts' are one of those consequences of new technology that couldn't have been foreseen (in the same way that the huge popularity of using cell phones for texting took the industry by surprise). There will surely be other consequences, for in jumping from the printed page onto portable e-devices, reading has taken a leap into a world that excites some and terrifies others for its capacity to change the very nature of concepts that we thought immutable.
Friday July 2nd 2010, 8:49 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Joyce, ages ago I joined a Facebook group dedicated to sharing thoughts on Ishiguro's book 'The Unconsoled'. The conversation about this book were fascinating. So at least one Facebook 'Book Group' has happened and I'd be surprised if there weren't more. Can I suggest you start such a group for your most recently read book and see what happens? You never know, it might give me an incentive to read the book!

One advantage of virtual groups is that they have no time restraints - getting there for 8 o'clock and leaving before ten to take the babysitter home. If you formed a group to discuss a book, I could add a comment in 6 months' time (I'm a slow reader) and it would still register and probably be read by you and maybe others.
Friday July 2nd 2010, 12:53 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
Maybe you're missing the point. My guess is that most ereaders read for entertainment.

Bertrand Russell, one of 20th century's foremost thinkers, liked television soap operas. He was challenged about that in a magazine (I've forgotten which) about never missing his favorite soaps. To paraphrase his response, one isn't relevant 24 hours a day.

Today, people are relevant for much of their day and it is not surprising that the most popular books on Kindle are not turgid mind-sucks.

If what you say about Amazon learning my preferences is true, I might buy one. I like ads focused on my interests and hate all others.

Thanks for your thoughts,

Friday July 2nd 2010, 3:38 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I received a book order yesterday from Barnes and Noble, and with it, an insert advertising a subscription service that offered access to "thousands of textbooks" that are "already highlighted." The idea being promoted was that you now didn't have to bother reading the dull bits – someone has kindly marked all the things you need to know. This is what I thought of in reading your piece. A good thing? My student days are long over, but I don't regret slogging through any of my textbooks, and I was happy to do my own highlighting. I would hate to think that the classics will be reduced to "highlights" that everyone can look up online and no one will read them any more.
Friday July 2nd 2010, 6:23 PM
Comment by: Syzygy
In 1998-1999 I bought the Nuvomedia Rocket eBook (ReB) and fell in love with ebook readers, in general. Unfortunately, the publishers and the markets were not ready for this innovation.

I, too, prefer the visceral appeal of a dead tree book... the smell, the tactile feel of turning pages and the presence of all the book I've read up on my shelf where just seeing the spine of a book that brings to mind the experience of reading it... good or bad.

As it turns out, I read mostly non-fiction and technical books (e.g., physics, math, Internet, technology and history), which are often large, high-end hardcover books with lots of glossy image pages, target a small market and, thus, are rather expensive. I hope ebooks will reduce the weight and cost of those books. How great it would be to have all my reference books in my ebook reader.

Most of all, I want a simple reader... WiFi only (no cell phone contracts!) that, ideally, accepts USB thumb drives. It should display a wide range of media from epub, mobi, PDF, and web standards. I do like highlighting and adding notes but absolutely don't want my ebook reader to tell anyone anything about what I am reading. Besides, most people will find my reading list arcane and boring.

Frankly, I am not at all motivated to seek out the "most popular" passages of the most popular books. Opt me out!
Friday July 2nd 2010, 6:51 PM
Comment by: Lya C.
I appreciated this article as I've been considering whether to join with the rest of my literati friends in their Kindle reverie, but have long suspected narcotic influences at work. Your article helped to clarify this issue for me, and I can say a bit more firmly: I'm not sold on the whole Kindle thing; it's just not me.
I prefer to hold a real book; to feel the texture and edges of the page and the weight of it in my hands. The smell of books is intoxicating to me. The first thing I do when I get a book, new or new-to-me, is bury my face in the middle of it and take a good whiff. I also love writing in the margins or underlining lightly, in pencil, like Joyce mentioned in her post.
One thing I do that is probably heretical is I use thin post-its to flag topics I need for my writing. I have heard the glue is not good for the book pages, but it allows me to see at a glance what is pertinent and helps me organize, which is a perpetually elusive task. In addition, the colorful "flags" look happy and feel fun on the tips of my fingers.
Perhaps the Kindle would help with organization, and over time pay for itself by decreasing my need for thin post-its, but I doubt it will ever deliver the sensual experience of a newly printed, or gently loved, book...and I may need to start a support group.

Saturday July 3rd 2010, 7:27 AM
Comment by: John S.
I love real books and the older and more marked and marred they come, the better. I have spent hours, if not days, combing through used book stores from Chicago to Kanda, where miracle finds determined my reading agenda. I always marveled at what some grad student found significant enough to mark in a musty old classic. Then, Amazon revolutionized used book searches by doing the footwork for me and extending my reach worldwide--wasn't that Amazon's original attraction? Amazon found me a paperback history of the Long Trail written in 1925 or so that I treasured, until someone else treasured it away. Now it is like that book never existed, for me at least.

But I move so much and my book collection dwindles with each hop. When I got on the plane for a transpacific move, I had to leave so many volumes on many things I loved. Like a houseful of pet cats, I had to find homes for all of them. What a burden! The Kindle was just emerging then and I thought, this must be the answer--everything stored in some safe server somewhere so that I can retrieve it when needed. Let it sit on my lap, stroke it a bit, feed it some tuna, then click it away. Digital books are turning the corner with better images so we can enjoy the graphics and pictures as well as the text. And wifi and wireless networks are making them available at a touch. Competition is swooping in to free us from the restrictions Amazon may impose. It is just a matter of time--and probably not much time--until "real" books are as rare as vinyl records. If less privacy is what I have to pay, I do not mind.

But I do not want to have to carry around a bagful of electronic gadgets--I prefer my Mac Book and I am waiting until I can get all the Kindle features in the Mac version. A matter of a few months?
Saturday July 3rd 2010, 9:46 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
Perhaps for our transition generations, the ereader manufacturers will provide some kind of worn-leather pouch that fits around the device. As expensively renewable accessories, they could supply sachets of dust (priced according to age), harvested from the few remaining second-hand bookstores, that we could sprinkle inside; a scratch-and-sniff card loaded with the smell of printer's ink; and finally a leaf from a real book for us to fondle lovingly as we read the arid, lifeless e-text from a smooth, sterile machine.
Saturday July 3rd 2010, 8:20 PM
Comment by: LINDA133
Mind candy is good for the soul, and too many of us don't relax nearly often enough. So relax, and remember that most folks who read the classics do so for school, and those folks are generally kids, and THEY aren't buying Kindles. Or so it seems. Now I'm curious - so I'm off to Amazon to see if there's any demo info on Kindle sales. I'm betting that the target demo is the boomer generation, not their kids and grand kids. And, FWIW, my kids don't read school assignments on a Kindle - they still read dead tree books bought locally at Barnes and Noble or Borders or the over-priced university bookstore.
Saturday July 3rd 2010, 9:11 PM
Comment by: doctorephesus (Newport Beach, CA)
When I'm done with the tedious 10-14 hours of exposure to chemically-whitewashed unyielding and uncreative hospital and clinic walls, it is near-ecstatic resurrection to walk into my tidy eclectic library of full bookcases that anchor my many imaginings and silent witnesses of my life outside the mundane, torrid electronic world. From many of the comments herein, I am - with shared allegiance - revived there's a loving set of readers (perhaps a majority) who preferably consume reading as a 3-D experience.

Actually, I brood over my books (perhaps a diagnosable condition). For me, I concur that I'm truly not impressed having others know which books or how much I brood via my highlighting or annotation. When Kindle appeared I reluctantly spied on one by looking over a Kindle reader's shoulder. Reluctance turned quickly to rejection at the electronically whitewashed unyielding 2-D intrusion into my sacrosanct, sensory-laden pastime.

More specifically, Kindle's utility factor plummeted, because invariably in my library, as others enjoy too well, within minutes of opening the first book, two to five others naturally appear on the table evoking a multi-voiced conversation that no number of Kindles could reproduce, highlighted or not.

Very apropos insights, Dr. Baron, thank you.
Sunday July 4th 2010, 6:36 PM
Comment by: Julie (Chicago, IL)
Kindle hilites can only represent the opinions of those who Kindle-read.
Monday July 5th 2010, 2:32 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Kindle may well be useful for some reading for me. Just maybe to have a book I can carry easily to doctor's appointments! Wait time can be tedious. So far, a Sudoko puzzle book suffices.

But like many others here, I like to read and make notes, shades of university training! I cannot reduce everything to the digital point, even when doing research on a computer!

I love words, and words put together in sentences. And I love mulling over what someone means, and putting a picture of it all together in my mind. And page turning, real pages, seem essential.

I could see a Kindle maybe for my choices of magazines, or some research bits... but even then, I just don't know if it would be worth it all.

And not to have the security of having the book, or the privacy of reading for me, myself, making my own notes.

It's too high a price to pay for Kindle!
Tuesday July 6th 2010, 7:10 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
There's nothing quite like writing a letter on nice stationery - with a fountain pen, preferably. But although most of us have succumbed to the convenience of email, the letter-writing option is still there. It rarely has to be 'either-or' when we are faced with technological innovation. Ancient and modern usually co-exist, at least for a while.

When the price of e-readers comes down sufficiently, every family will have several e-readers lying around, for reading tasks that they find appropriate. But we'll still have the option to settle down with a good book, perhaps mischievously using an e-reader as a coaster for our cocoa.
Tuesday July 6th 2010, 10:09 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Well said, Geoff!
Sunday July 18th 2010, 1:54 PM
Comment by: Jim F.
At almost 70 years of age and saddled with Parkinson's, I find this whole conversation, boils down primarily to an exercise on part of most participants in "intellectual snobbery" and says nothing at all about one's real love of reading.

If you love the "written word", who give a flying "*&^%" how you choose to read it. As for the Kindle, I find it to be the best of all possible worlds for me. I also own a Sony and a Nook, but still prefer the access afforded me by the Kindle(I also have never consented to Amazon collecting my annotations.). I also am and have been for years a mind mapper.

Yes, I was an early participant(still am) in Project Gutenberg, I also use Mobi Pocket Creator. There is an excellent Open Source program for managing the on-line library called "Calibre".

Talk about Esoteric Nonsense!!!

BTW, I lost a 10,000+ plus volume library in 1979 to a fire in my home.
Sunday July 18th 2010, 6:19 PM
Comment by: John S.
Sunday July 18th 2010, 7:46 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I don't think the attitudes that can be discerned from our comments here are snobbery. It's more a case of what we are used to. And in your case, what has improved for you with Kindle.

I still like a pencil and paper, even the margins of my books will do. So I still prefer my books on paper -- with good margins! And some empty pages, too.

However, were I taking a long trip to a place where books were not available, I would like a Kindle. I've become used to listening to books on tape and CD, so getting a book that way wouldn't be a great leap and would be a convenience.

I think more of the 'hardness' of the Kindle, the machineness of it. That's what keeps me from it. I'd love to have a more convenient sort of library. Just not in my head to do it yet.
Monday July 19th 2010, 7:19 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
I saw a Harvard professor interviewed and he was saying how freshers have more and more begun to express dismay when he hands out his book list - dismay at the thought of all that READING. Is it possible that today's students can get through high school just by using the Internet and without opening a book and doing some serious reading?

It may be that e-readers will offer a last chance of redemption for reading, suited to the e-generation, though somehow I doubt it. In the end it's not the format of books that puts people off but the need to concentrate. Those Harvard freshers weren't appalled by the idea of having to hold bound books and turn over paper pages. They were appalled by the need to absorb so many written words at once.

It is so easy passively to absorb hundreds of spoken words in moving pictures or even a few dozen written words in Facebook updates or Tweets, but thousands and thousands of written words? In whatever format, paper or e-reader, those require a huge effort of concentration which, if you're not used to it, can be mentally painful. I know because as my reading has decreased over the years, for personal reasons, so has the pain increased when I do read!

Reading works that contain lots and lots of words is a relatively recent phenomenon, and there's nothing to say it has to survive. An interesting thought is that authors seeking immortality were wise if they wrote plays, not novels. Novelists may have to be satisfied with surviving in dramatised form - Dickens probably wouldn't object if he got posthumous royalties!
Monday July 19th 2010, 12:08 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
Geoff, your comment explains the importance of adults reading to very young children from paper books, talking about the story, talking about the picture, but mostly, just getting them used to the concept of all those words.

With all the texting and tweeting, this early learning becomes even more critical. Otherwise, enjoyment and understanding of much of the wisdom gained in past centuries will be lost, hidden in those mysterious items on some strange shelving.

And what about developing new ideas, or expanding or adjusting those already expressed anew. What about all that's going on in the world of science about the universe, its beginning and prehistory. All that takes reading of many words.

Are the students entering our universities now going to be self-limited to one or two sentence expositions? It is hard to imagine the discovery of 'Oetzi' being explained that succinctly.

And what about reading Mary Poppins and Alice in Wonderland and Little Woman -- instead of simply watching the movies? What a loss for them!
Monday July 19th 2010, 7:49 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
It's a huge loss, yes, Jane. But you know the 'digest' method of teaching and learning has been around for a while. My wife is American. She read English & Chemistry at a liberal arts college in Wooster Ohio, back in the late 1960s. To increase her credits she took modules in this and that, including French Literature. The textbook for this course covered the whole of French Literature in one volume, offering digests of authors' lives and excerpts from their works. (I realise that French *majors* would have to read complete works!)

But I teased Lynn about this at first (I have a French degree from an English university, you see) until, as the years passed, it became clear that she knew far more about the subject than I did. The salient, highlighted points had stuck in her memory bank, whereas I had in effect known too much and ditched it all as I needed the space!

I've just remembered the point of my story: the difference between reading to remember facts (Lynn would still win a trivia quiz on French literature) and reading to challenge our outlook on life, to help us develop as human beings. It's true that I remember now very little of all the books I read in My French (and Russian) degree, but many of them deeply affected me at the time and those effects have not faded with time.

I am still the person who was moved by the novels of Balzac, made to think deeply by Pascal, and challenged to ponder the meaning of life by Dostoevsky. It was while reading 'Crime & Punishment' that I realised for the first time in my life that I would die - realised not as a theoretical fact but as a gut-wrenching *certainty* of my own mortality.

It's that engagement, that penetration, that is lost in most movies (perhaps Bergman's The Seventh Seal is an exception!) and in the highlighting of great works. Even having stories read to you is not as powerful as reading it yourself. It's the fact that it's all happening silently in your head, as though the author is mainlining his words directly into your brain, into your being, without any intermediary.
Thursday March 10th 2011, 10:09 AM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
Calm down, everyone. You don't have to pay attention to others' highlights, or share your own. And why anybody would think that the highlights would come from books that aren't bestsellers ... Who's going to release their private notes and thoughts and highlights to the world? Serious scholars? After they're dead, maybe.

Fair disclosure: I wouldn't be without my Kindle for anything. I take it everywhere. I read Russian authors, and linguistics, and science - and Terry Pratchett and out of print mysteries and Anthony Trollope on it. It allows me to carry over 400 books (so far) in my hand onto an airplane or into a hotel room. But I've never shared a highlight with Amazon, and I don't expect I will.

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