Writers Talk About Writing
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.