Sunday, October 17, 2010

Alone enough to read

At the Times Magazine, Virginia Heffernan on the oddity of the Kindle popular highlights feature (which I am going to disable now that I know I can!):
Marked by a dotted underscore that indicates that other Kindle users have found the passages significant, popular highlights constitute crowd-sourced literary criticism. Readers, on the spot and yet collaboratively, make meaning of what they’re reading. The effect is odd — even for those of us who see literature as something readers determine incrementally and collectively.

Click on the popular-highlight passages and you will discover exactly how many Kindle readers have singled them out. “Happiness is the consequence of personal effort,” for example, was evidently highlighted 1,626 times (as of this writing) in “Eat, Pray, Love,” by Elizabeth Gilbert. In Abraham Verghese’s “Cutting for Stone,” 1,547 Kindle users cottoned to “Life, too, is like that. You live it forward, but understand it backward.”

Sounds about right. But many writers don’t write aphoristically, and many readers don’t read for aphorisms. In a popularly highlighted world, we all may begin to. The dotted line, like the distinctive hue or underscore that signals a word is clickable on the Web, may be a new kind of punctuation that affects contemporary style. (Amazon reports that its most heavily highlighted books include Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” and Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” as well as the Verghese novel and the Gilbert memoir.)

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