“Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters inside your skull.” That’s Winston, from 1984, explaining that there’s no hiding from the Thought Police. Reading the line on my Kindle recently, I got a similar sense that I wasn’t alone. On Amazon’s e-reader, the sentence bears a faint underline with the notation “14,721 highlighters.” It’s a feature known as “popular highlights” that makes reading a party—and me a wet blanket.
I never planned on being a Kindle reader. I love print books the way a squatter loves a foreclosed mansion. Vandalizing their factory-cut pages with a series of dog ears and tea stains, new books were as much a tactile experience as a literary one for me. But I move a lot and have the vision of a mole. So—in an act of radical acceptance that I’m not getting Lasik or a real bookshelf anytime soon—I picked up Amazon’s e-reader. Now reading feels more like living in a casino, someplace where a chance to part with your money is always just a click away.
I’ll admit, many of the device’s interactive features are unobtrusive and even delightful. Kindle’s one-tap dictionary deciphers Mary Shelley’s “yon” and “treble” and clears up the distinction between “whence” and “thence.” Its Wikipedia integration is equally handy for classics, offering, for instance, quick context about Renaissance literature and the rule of King Robert the Wise. But “popular highlights” are a scourge. In a library book, pen marks in the margins are the price of sharing. On my e-reader, these grubby virtual thumbprints are a constant reminder that I don’t own my book, just a digital licence.
Worse yet, these highlights are terrible. They emphasise titular lines like “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (10,430 highlighters) and “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die” (6,407 highlighters). They call attention to basic plot points, like the announcement that Nicolas Flamel created the Sorcerer’s Stone (from the chapter titled “Nicolas Flamel” in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone). And when they’re not underlining the obvious, they act as an in-text peanut gallery, wo0o0o0o-ing at saucy passages and ahhhhh-ing at the big lines. Thanks, fellow Kindle readers, I never would’ve remembered “One Ring to rule them all” without your hard work.
I’m not alone in my annoyance. One Redditor compared “popular highlights” to kids trespassing on your lawn. Another thought it was worse than that:
What I don’t want is for me to be relaxing on my lawn, reading a book, and for some young whippersnapper to wind down their window as they drive past and shout “this is a good bit”, “in the following chapter the protagonist describes their childhood” or “keep an eye on the butler”.
Even at Gizmodo, I’m not the only one who’s noticed. “I often feel like I come across a highlighted passage or sentence in Kindle that feels like it might be important only because it’s highlighted,” said Reporter Catie Keck. “But a few times I’ve circled back and the highlight goes nowhere. Useless!”
Senior Consumer Tech Editor Alex Cranz agreed. “I read a lot of gay books and the gayest passages are always highlighted,” she observed. “It’s usually like, She looked at her. She looked back.”
Thankfully, it’s not too hard to toggle this feature off—and, admittedly, it’s even kinda fun to hear the collective shriek of readers who have woken up to discover that Gregor Samsa is a BUG!!! But the entire experience has me questioning my reading practices in a way I never have before. Are everyone else’s books filled with vigorously underlined author names and big circles around the chapter titles? Am I, in fact, the one who is totally weird?