Highlighting the lily

Andrei Codrescu’s commentary on NPR’s All Things Considered always makes me smile. His lovely Romanian accent imbues all of his pronouncements with a crabby world weariness that implies centuries of despair, toil and heavy drinking. Too, of course, I’m a sucker for literate cranks.

So, imagine my delight when, driving home on Monday, I found myself listening to Mr. Codrescu as he ruminated about how the discovery of highlighted passages in his brand new Kindle e-book enraged him. His sonorous, vaguely funereal delivery gave perfect voice to my own outrage about finding other people’s muddy tracks on the pristine pages of my book.

As big a fan of electronic books as I’ve become, there is a part of me that disdains the enforced democratization of the reading process that they represent. While I fully understand the logic behind .99¢ pricing of e-books, for instance, I wish that we valued books enough to be willing to pay more for them—after all, .99¢ is the price of a song on iTunes; a whole book is a much bigger undertaking than a song. And, I do certainly resent Amazon for thinking that allowing me to see other people’s highlights on the text I’m reading will somehow inform and enrich my reading experience. Reading, as Mr. Codrescu points out, is “the most private of peaceful activities.” Can’t we move forward technologically and yet preserve that privacy and peace?

Are Andrei Codrescu and I making too much of a silly marketing device by the Kindle folks or do you guys agree that highlighted passages are all kinds of wrong?

14 Responses to Highlighting the lily

  1. Suzi McGowen says:

    I’ve never gotten someone else’s highlights (or notes) in my Kindle books. I think there is something very wrong with Andrei’s copy and he should contact Amazon support.

    Or maybe he’s mistaking the hyperlinks to foot and end notes to be someone else’s highlighting?

  2. Whit says:

    Totally agree – always hated buying a used book and then discovering highlighting, underlining, and comments left by some previous reader.

    Now, if I could choose whose marks I could see, that would be very different, but I would still want to be able to read a pristine text if I chose.

  3. Crystal says:

    I agree that reading is a very private thing. Reading is my escape from the world – I don’t want the world intruding on me with their highlights!

    Thankfully, you can very easily turn that function off in your Kindle settings.

  4. LupLun says:


    Can’t you, you know, turn them off?

    If you can’t… why the hell not? O_o

  5. Gina Black says:

    It is a total invasion of privacy. They really ought not to be doing it.

  6. Brodi Ashton says:

    I heard that piece! I loved it, and totally agree. A book is a blank slate for my imagination. I don’t need someone else’s scribbles.

  7. Miriam says:

    Right?! I think you can turn off that function but I think the point is that it’s obnoxious that they added it to begin with and that it’s something that has to be turned off.

  8. David says:

    It doesn’t bother me at all.

    For one, it’s turn-off-able.

    Second, it’s nice to see what kind of writing resonates with readers.

    Third, reading remains as private or as public as you want it to be, regardless of what your device does or doesn’t do.

    Fourth, and this is a testament to my sometimes-lazy reading — it makes me take note of a passage I might have glossed over.

  9. Rowenna says:

    Leftover highlighting an annotating is something I expect when I buy a used book…and I admit it makes me feel like a voyeur. (Even more so when 75 year old algebra homework fell out of the antique copy of Tennyson I bought…and of course I had to wonder if that homework ever got redone and turned in…). But in an e-book? That, by its nature, didn’t sit on someone else’s shelf collecting ephemera and notes for a decade or two? Bizarre. And oddly invasive.

  10. Kendra says:

    I’ve always appreciated the highlights and notes people have left in the used books I buy – then again, they’re mostly textbooks and it’s like having someone else do the work for you. In used novels – eh. I never cared much one way or another, and sometimes the notes can be mysterious and intriguing.

    The highlight sharing Kindle allows, though, is a fabulous tool for writers, in my opinion. It lets you know what resonates with readers. And it’s not always what you think it will be.

  11. Other people’s highlighted passages are every kind of wrong. If I want to know what you liked or didn’t in a book, I’ll talk to you, or read your blog, or look to your review on Goodreads, or invite you into my reading group. If you’re Harold Bloom or Richard Ellmann I’ll read *your* books, after I read what you’ve written about.

    When I read, I’m after my own experience of and response to the author’s work.

  12. Ryan Field says:

    I had no idea they were even doing this. I only read Kobo e-books right now, so I’m not familiar with kindle. But if Kobo did it, I would try to figure out how to get rid of it, or just stop reading.

  13. Tommy Salami says:

    Personally I can’t wait until instead of reading books we’re only reading the highlighted passages aggregated in our twitter feed.
    Twiff’s Notes.

  14. Lisa Ahn says:

    I was bothered by those highlights when I first got my Kindle too — and glad to find a way to turn them off. Finding a book with highlights in it is a bit like a uncovering an old conversation. It can be a treasure in a used book. In the Kindle, I find it more distracting, maybe because I don’t expect it there.

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