I have a problem with the Amazon Kindle.
There are two readings of that sentence, of course. I might mean that I take issue with some aspect of the device, the way people have a problem with the air conditioning or taxes. That’s the sense people mean when they ask, “You got a problem with that?” which they do whenever they’re gangsters with poorly written dialogue.
The other sense would be the confessional usage, which is more recent and less common. This is what people are doing when they say, “I have a problem with alcohol,” which they say whenever they’re trying to qualify for a study at the med school.
What is interesting about my case, at least to me, is that I have a problem in both senses. While my issues with the Kindle are minor, my addiction is overwhelming.
The addiction is straightforward; I buy books too often — more often than I can read them. I know I have books queued up, and yet I buy more, thinking that I’ve never regretted a purchase but have often regretted not purchasing a book when I had the chance. This is, of course, the sort of thinking that leads people to blockade themselves in their houses with old newspaper; because my purchases are digital, however, I am unlikely to have a charming but stern British person come and help me while putting me on television.
My issue with the Kindle is trivial in comparison, and I’ve managed to work around it. I find the situation so odd, however, that I feel that it must be symptomatic of something more important.
I am speaking of the Shared Highlights feature found on all Kindle products.
For those of you unfamiliar with this feature, let me briefly explain. Kindle users are able to highlight passages in their digital books. This feature is useful for studying and for noting key passages one would like to reflect on later. Thus presented, highlights seem like a useful — even necessary — feature for reading books without actual page numbers. By and large, they are.
However, by default, the Kindle shares these highlights with other users while sharing their highlights with you. Thus, you will come upon a passage and find it underlined with a dotted line indicating that a significant number of readers found it in some way interesting.
One can see how this function might grow annoying; the mind naturally reads highlighted passages as emphasized, which is not the author’s intention. Luckily, this feature can be deactivated easily.
But despite having turned off this feature on my own Kindle, I have frequently caught myself thinking about it, trying to understand why Amazon includes it and why people keep it active. I admit I am uncertain, but I have begun to develop a theory.
My original idea was that these highlights were like a laugh track on a sitcom, letting us know what the funny parts are. And while the highlights superficially resemble a laugh track, they are different in origin. While a laugh track is applied by producers, by The Man, if you will, popular highlights come from other users. And so I think shared highlights are the Yelp of literature, letting us know what the world thinks of what we’re reading.
This may not seem to be much of an insight; perhaps it isn’t. Nor may this development seem troubling; social highlights may seem to be a sort of digital and anonymous book club.
But the highlights, unlike any book club, are presented while you read and thus are more pernicious. Social highlights suggest that we must know what everyone thinks of a passage in order to think of it at all. Instead of forming our own opinions and comparing them to those of others, we now form our opinions only by consulting others. Solitude is impossible, even within a book.
I wish I had some sort of sweeping, triumphant conclusion here, but I don’t. I mean, I won’t pretend that this is the greatest problem facing America or anything, and any of you with Kindles can just turn the feature off in your settings. But I do think we need to stay vigilant against the practice of relying on the opinions of others before we consider the issue on our own.
Mitchell Nobel is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.