Print is dead. Or so I hear from my Kindle-toting friends. As someone who has yet to jump on the e-reader bandwagon, I’m quick to point out that although technically paper is dead tree, I can read my expired plant matter long after their fancy devices burn through their batteries. But this isn’t a rant about the failure of modern society to appreciate the physicality of a good book. The real issue is not whether my fingertips will be deprived of the pleasure of turning a page, or whether the cartilage in my spine will be preserved thanks to even the most massive tome’s newfound portability. The question is how the digitalization of books — and for me, literature in particular — has the potential to change the act of interpretation.
For a glimpse of how technology could impinge on a reader’s own ideas on a text, look no further than Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” feature, released as part of a software update for its bestselling Kindle e-reader this summer. The feature takes advantage of a Kindle user’s ability to mark his or her text with “highlighting,” which is really just dotted underlining. Amazon is able to aggregate the data from its large base of customers, and identify and share the most highlighted passages and books. (You can check the feature out yourself online, whether or not you own a Kindle.) Once a particular passage is highlighted by more than three readers, it will be highlighted for all users by default.
Much of the controversy over the feature centers on whether customers want Amazon to have access to information that many might want to keep private. Amazon argues that the information is only kept as a collective whole, independent of highlighter-origin, so people needn’t worry. Privacy issues aside, at the very least, Amazon should be absolutely clear about what information it collects, stores, and re-posts.
But let’s unpack this further. Amazon contends Popular Highlights helps “readers to focus on passages that are meaningful to the greatest number of people.” It’s a bit like reading a used book, except this method has crowd-sourcing going for (or against) it. While it will be unclear why exactly the passage has been selected for special attention (currently, notes are not included), the Kindle will display how many people have highlighted the passage, thus providing a rough quantitative measure of its popular importance. But what does that really mean?
If 844 people are telling me that the first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is the most important line of the book, should I pay extra attention? If I don’t find a highlighted passage compelling, am I missing something? And will I highlight differently if I know this information will be used to inform other readers, and will this affect my reading?
I probably don’t need Popular Highlights to tell me that the most highlighted segment of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is its famous first line. And I’m not sure I’d ever highlight anything in William P. Young’s The Shack (currently the #1 most highlighted book of all time). But I find both of these pieces of data fascinating as they reflect the conflict in today’s society about defining the traditional literary canon.
In a way, Popular Highlights embraces the concept of close reading (essentially, the New Criticism approach to literature), that focuses on the interpretation of the words themselves, and not the biography of the author. At the same time, Kindle’s Popular Highlights argues against the idea that a text should only be evaluated intrinsically, suggesting that a reader’s reaction to a work also informs it.
If Popular Highlights (or its future spawn) allows people to engage more with the text, I would not deny it to readers, even though personally I would turn the feature off. After all, the algorithms behind Popular Highlights might be able to evaluate the veracity of Austen’s introductory statement, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” but they can’t tell you what it really means.
Jessica McDonald is a fifth-year student in Immunobiology.