Friday, May 15, 2015

Highlighting Highlights

I was reading along in my e-book edition of Piper Hugeley's Christian historical romance, The Preacher's Promise, when I came cross a passage underlined with light grey dots—the sign the Kindle uses to indicate that an earlier reader of the book had used the Kindle's highlighting function to call out a passage she particularly wanted to remember.  The sentences in question—a prayer spoken by the novel's female protagonist, Amanda Stewart—were not ones that I would have highlighted. But a touch of a fingertip to my iPad instantly informed me that "5 other people highlighted this part of the book." Though I have no idea who those five other people might be, I did know that they all found the passage worth remembering. Were these five readers indicative of the general audience for Hugeley's book? Did they suggest that many, or most, of her readers approached her book looking for religious inspiration more than (or perhaps as much as) for the emotional pleasures of romance? Were they highlighting passages for their own edification, or because they wanted to point out the book's religious message to other readers?

After thinking about such questions, my mind began to consider the egotistical flip side of this highlighting business—what, if anything, would other readers make of the passages I chose to highlight?

When I read a romance, I underline words or sentences containing information that might be relevant if I decide to write a review of the book (characters' ages, descriptions, relationships to others, backstories, etc.). But I also highlight passages that I consider feminist-friendly, or passages that hint at (or openly espouse) anti-feminist ideas or sentiments. Such passages might be more widely read than any review I would ever pen. Might coming across such highlighted passages in their books lead other readers to start thinking about issues of feminism and romance, too?

Turns out, probably not. As the amazon Kindle FAQ page, under the topic "Popular Highlights," informs us:

The Amazon Kindle and the Kindle Apps each provide a very simple mechanism for adding highlights. Every month, Kindle customers highlight millions of book passages that are meaningful to them.
We combine the highlights of all Kindle customers and identify the passages with the most highlights. The resulting Popular Highlights help readers to focus on passages that are meaningful to the greatest number of people. We show only passages where the highlights of at least three distinct customers overlap, and we do not show which customers made those highlights.

Unless at least two other people have underlined the same passage that I have, it's not going to appear as a highlight in another Kindle e-book. So much for my delusions of grandeur, believing I might indirectly influence the popular romance-reading public towards a greater awareness of feminist issues...

Or does it? Turns out that the Kindle has another highlighting feature, one they've dubbed "Public Notes":

This feature allows Kindle customers to make their highlights and notes available for anyone to see. Now authors, thought leaders, passionate readers, professors and all Kindle users can opt-in to share their notes with other readers, helping friends, family members, and other Kindle users who choose to follow them to get more from their reading. If someone you follow has highlighted a passage in a book and has turned on Public Notes for the book, you'll see that passage highlighted along with the name of the person who highlighted it. You'll also see the notes that they made in the book.

Direct influence among followers, rather than indirect influence among the public at large. And I though my delusions of grandeur were egotistical...

Do you pay attention to the highlights other people have made in the books you read? Do you follow other readers specifically so you can see their highlights and notes? Or do you ignore highlights completely? Or find them so annoying you've decided to shut them off entirely?


  1. I highlight the heck out of ebooks, usually for review purposes (though mine are usually food, not feminism), but sometimes just passages that make me laugh or think. I've been a book-highlighter since high school so it's a familiar practice for me.

    I did, however, turn off the "other people highlighted" feature for the same reason I don't read reviews of a book I know I'm going to be reviewing too. I don't want to be biased by outside influence. Plus, those highlights struck me as perplexing most of the time. I was baffled why others thought those lines were so important. I started to wonder if people highlight just because they saw others were highlighting too. Ebook peer pressure!

    And I would never want people to read the comments I make while reading. I am much snarkier in the privacy of my own Kindle...

    1. The Guardian had an interesting article about highlighting, in which the author suggested just what you did: that seeing someone else's highlights might make one feel the need to highlight the same passages, too. Peer pressure indeed!

      I don't use the note function too much myself; do you go back and read your notes after you've finished?

    2. I do. Every time I write a review. I like to see what struck me in the moment in addition to working with my overall impression once I've finished the book. I think it helps that I've read this way for a very long time. But now my comments are searchable! And I have unlimited space! Lack of space is a major annoyance when it comes to trying to write intelligently about category romances. The margins are uncomfortably small. I never thought I'd be an ebook person, but between that and the fact that it's its own light source, I'm a total convert.

  2. As a writer, I have been curious about highlights. I write in the Austenesque genre. Very few other JAFF authors are highlighted, but three of mine have been extensively highlighted (Goodly Creatures, Mr Darcy's Cottage of Earthly Delights and Mr Darcy Likes it Wild). I have been trying to understand why. Several of the highlights were of lines of Shakespeare, but most of the others were either romantic or humorous lines I wrote. None were any of my feminist lines. I do not highlight, but then I am technologically challenged. I think I am flattered my readers have pointed out something I wrote, but I am unsure. My latest Thoroughly Modern Charlotte is the most feminist, and it has not been highlighted yet.

  3. I haven't paid that much attention to it, other than to note the passages that get highlighted tend to be hero-centric or love confessions or something. HOWEVER, now I want to read yours, heh!

  4. I checked Courtney Milan. All of hers have tons of highlights, and the things they have highlighted are mostly thought provoking. I am jealous.

  5. Yes, I pay attention to the highlights other people have made in the books I read, although I see they tend to highlight things that are different from the ones I highlight. They give me hints about what other people found interesting in the book.
    No, I don't follow other readers specifically so I can see their highlights and notes.
    I'm very fond of History, and I tend to highlight things that sound anachronistic, for instance, in order to check it later if I'm going to mention it in a review. Words and concepts that didn't exist in the time the book is set. Or places that had not beem built yet. That in the romantic genre.
    When I'm reading a different book, I tend to highlight ideas, thoughts, political issues, those things. And, sometimes, poetic parts, just for the amazing poetry of some sentences.

  6. I've turned off community highlights (I used to have it on, and in some books I found it distracting, like a bunch of people would have highlighted something I found pedestrian and it would give me nerd outrage) but I highlight a moderate amount. I highlight either things I find beautiful, lyrical, inspiring, thought-provoking, particularly romantic, etc, or sometimes because it's a book I'm not enjoying and the part I'm highlighting is something I want to be able to find when I write a grumpy review.