Reading in the Shadows of Strangers: On Shared Highlighting

Like many of you, I am sure, I remember saving money in college by buying used books. I really hated the concept of using someone else’s books for class because I always wanted a pristine copy of the textbook or novel that I could mark up as I saw fit. Instead, I had to deal with someone else’s version of main ideas and interesting points highlighted in (mostly) yellow, and I was always distracted by those markings by the past owner. Did I agree with their marking? If I didn’t, was I missing something? I found myself reading in the shadows of strangers, trying to make my own observations and connections whole in some invisible conversation with someone else.

I was thinking about this again as I (late to the game, I realize) began to use my Kindle App on my Mac to read ebooks. I like Amazon’s collection of short pieces just for the Kindle, but I don’t have an eReader device. So I read on my laptop (which is not quite the same thing as snuggling down on the couch — so the reading experience is not nearly the same but still …). I hadn’t quite counted on a feature that seems completely logical given our connected culture, but it still has me remembering those college textbook days: the notation feature that shows how many other readers of my eBook have highlighted specific passages in the same ebook. (It also reminded me that the ebook that I buy is still part of the Amazon infrastructure, and not really sitting there in my Kindle App. Which is odd to think about, right? Do I really own this book or not?)

For example, I am now in the midst of Gutenberg the Geek by Jeff Jarvis. One section that I highlighted was also noted by 41 other readers before me.

ereader highlighting

And so I am left with the same conundrum that I had in college: I am interested in what other folks find interesting, and yet, I find myself reading those passages very differently — almost out of context from the whole. When a certain sentence has a few dozen highlighters affixed to it, I wonder: what is so important about that particular sentence that so many people added some color to remember it? I also wonder, did the first person highlight it for a specific reason, and then the next reader comes along, and say, “that must be important, I’d better highlight it, too,” and then the layers of highlighting grows from there, as if we were are reading-lemmings? Are we all being influenced by the readers before us? By the very first reader of this book to click on the highlighter?

I assume I can turn the shared highlighter off somewhere in my app, but I haven’t done that yet. That’s because I am still uncertain about how I feel about having it there. On one hand, it makes reading feel like a collaborative journey. My highlighting will be part of the ongoing narrative of this text for the next and future readers. I am not alone. On the other hand, I am unsettled by having other voices in my head as I read, pointing me to things that might be important to them but not to me.

No doubt, the emergence of eReaders and the tools that come with them are intriguing and unsettling at times, and completely fascinating in a range of ways.

Peace (in the highlights),



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