The Art of Underlining: Amazon Kindle’s “Popular Highlights”

by James Somers, July 23, 2012

When Seymour was twenty-one, a nearly full professor of English, and had already been teaching for two years, I asked him what, if anything, got him down about teaching. He said he didn't think that anything about it got him exactly down, but there was one thing, he thought, that frightened him: reading the pencilled notations in the margins of books in the college library. –J.D. Salinger, Seymour: An Introduction, 1959.

In college I borrowed a lot of library books and I wrote in every single one of them. My brother taught me young to "always read with a pen." I didn't quite understand what that meant until I found one of his old books from college on a shelf in our basement. It was filled with intense marginalia. He'd ask these combative questions ("On what grounds?" … "Yes, but why?." … "Isn't that the def'n of begging the question?"); he'd make up concrete examples where the author hadn't; on the inside covers he'd build a little personal index of short, full-sentence summaries, each labeled by a page number.

With that in my hands I realized how lazy I was and always had been. It was like old Paul Halmos yelling at me: "Don't just read it; fight it!"

Schopenhauer had this to say about the perils of reading: "It comes about that if anyone spends almost the whole day in reading, and by way of relaxation devotes the intervals to some thoughtless pastime, he gradually loses the capacity for thinking, just as the man who always rides forgets how to walk. This is the case with many learned persons; they have read themselves stupid." Schopenhauer reminds us of a simple fact: when we read, or at least when we read badly, read lazily, "another person thinks our thoughts for us."–Mark Edmundson, "Enough Already," The American Scholar.

By the time I got to college I thought I had sort of figured that out. I thought that I was pretty good at reading. And the surest display of my quiet, insecure egotism on the subject was the notes—in pencil, always, and ostentatiously neat—that I would leave in the margins of my library books.

Yes, I would think as I underlined some passage, this is the essence of the thing.

As satisfied as I was with my own nose for what was important, I was equally hard on my peers. I thought I saw in them a pattern. As I put it in a note to myself,

I have a hunch that young readers in school might be encouraged to underline the most abstract stuff, the most general stuff, the "upshot" sentences, instead of the examples those sentences are based on. Is it possible that they're taught to go after the wordsy stuff? And that they get so good at it that they affine for it and away from the concrete things, the things Feynman would care for?

That is, most students seemed to underline things that begged to be underlined. In nonfiction their pencils would anchor to the edges of paragraphs—to "topic sentences" or conclusory sentences—instead of middle-stuff (examples, anecdotes). In short stories they would inevitably underline the first and last sentences, the short one-sentence "money shot" paragraphs, and so on—the most epiphanic, purple prose.

At least that was my impression.

There is a feature on the Amazon Kindle called Popular Highlights. What it does is aggregate the digital underlinings of Kindle users. If enough of them underline the same thing, that passage is considered "popular" and gets highlighted. (What counts as popular depends on the book. In one book I have that was published just a few months ago, anything highlighted independently by three or more readers seems to qualify. In an older book the number is closer to forty.)

This e-pluribus-unum-ing of reading—this intelligent bubbling-up of disparate readerly attentions—lets us answer questions about the private discourse of literate minds that just ten years ago would have been discarded for being too dreamy.

What exactly do people find important in books? Are they good at gist-extraction in general? Do "dumb" books have "dumb" underlinings? Do readers underline what they disagree with? How often does something truly excellent not get picked up on by a quorum of readers? Does the rate of underlining degrade over the course of a book? Are short sentences more likely to be thought important than long ones? What about first versus middle sentences? A quotation versus bare prose? Simple versus fancy language? Do italics help a sentence's chances? How does the pattern of highlighting compare between nonfiction and nonfiction, or prose and poetry? How do writers highlight? Mathematicians?

These are examples of a new kind of question, one that we can now attack in earnest because people are doing things on line—on networked computers—that they used to do elsewhere.

Watching what people underline is a small example. What happens when you record someone write? Or when you record them talk?

If you think that searching a big index of web pages is cool, you haven't seen anything yet.