Highlighting in the Kindle Collective

October 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

It has become a weekly ritual for the New York Times to publish an article concerning e-books in some fashion or another.  What intrigued me about this week’s addition to the e-book dialogue was how Kindle users are able to see which book passages appealed to other readers.  It’s basically the digitized version of the superfluous highlighting and underlining often found in used books (and library books, which are not cool places for graffiti, it makes me want to throw things).

The article discusses how this feature is a “violation of virgin text,” and that is a fair assessment but haven’t we run into this issue before?  Anyone who has ever taken an English course can attest to reading at least some of the footnotes, endnotes, criticisms, and interpretations that accompany so many texts.  They are little bombs of knowledge that either make a reader rejoice because he or she knew the information already (which is rare) or they inflict the proverbial sigh and slump because that is just another book or idea that has yet to cross the reader’s path.  I mean, really, who has the time or ability to read Paradise Lost when half the text is footnotes for all the allusions Milton bequeathed upon his readers?  Perhaps it was his ploy to get into heaven.  Not only did he epically describing Genesis but he guaranteed entertainment for his afterlife buddies by making mortals slug through ten thousand lines of iambic pentameter with no hope of a Palahniuk-style plot twist.

In terms of all the other annotations that could be available (and probably will be soon), this feature is really not that big of a deal.  So the Kindle handler has the option to view the lines hundreds of people have highlighted, why fuss about it?  It has the possibility to be a fantastic game: just get a big group of English majors and bibliophiles together (they’re recognizable by their penchant for the words “diction” and “doppelganger”) then see who can guess how popular an iconic line is.  This may have to involve cocktails, which will simultaneously increase the enjoyment of most literature (notably Ulysses; seriously, try it) and the probability that you will be kicked out of the library.

Of course Kindlites (they need a name) if disturbed by this feature could just turn it off.  The article mentions this also then rebuts it by claiming once people see the reader highlights they will be addicted.  I’m not buying it.  I’m sure it would be great to know that other readers love a line as much as you, but reading is an inherently personal activity.  With this comes the occasional delusion that you are the sole individual to discover and possess this line (save for the author, the editors, the author’s friends, and possibly a goldfish or drooling black lab).  Plenty of readers are not going to give up such an experience to find out that they are no different than hundreds of others.   The highlighter might be useful and shouldn’t be shunned, but it definitely doesn’t hold a candle to the possibility of escapism provided by an unmarked text.

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