For almost as long as there have been books, readers have underlined passages, dog-eared pages, and scribbled in margins. Historians consulting surviving copies of Books of Hours, devotional works first compiled in the 13th century, run across all kinds of marginalia. One woman even listed the contents of her linen closet.
Of course, most such notations normally relate more directly to the reader’s interaction with the author’s work. In fact, despite admonitions from some quarters about marking up the pages of a book, over the years, many readers — among them the late Mortimer J. Adler, founder of the Great Books Foundation — have found it indispensable.
“I contend, quite bluntly, that marking up a book is not an act of mutilation but of love,” he wrote in The Saturday Review of Literature in the summer of 1941. “First, it keeps you awake. (And I don’t mean merely conscious; I mean awake.) In the second place; reading, if it is active, is thinking, and thinking tends to express itself in words, spoken or written. The marked book is usually the thought-through book. Finally, writing helps you remember the thoughts you had, or the thoughts the author expressed.”
E-books promise to radically alter that centuries-old habit — though it won’t be because one cannot underline or write in an e-book. Developers have already made sure that one can. Rather, e-books will change aspects of the practice by adding a social component to it, reducing or eliminating a reason for underlining, and quite possibly ending its utility to historians and biographers.
Unlike with a paper book, underlining an e-book is not necessarily a private activity. Many readers opening an e-book on their Kindle, Nook, Kobo, or iPad are unaware that their behavior may be tracked. In many cases what one highlights, bookmarks, and annotates, as well as one’s progress through the work, is reported back to the e-book provider and possibly to others, such as fellow e-book readers.
It’s not easy to determine which companies are doing this. Those who wish to can peruse license agreements and privacy policies found in online e-book stores. “That in turn can mean reading thousands of words of legalese before you read the first line of a new book,” said Cindy Cohn and Parker Higgins, authors of An E-Book Buyer’s Guide to Privacy, published by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Some major companies require that users grant them permission to obtain and store data from their e-book readers, including but not limited to bookmarks, highlights, and notations. According to the The Wall Street Journal, this trove of information revealed that Kobo readers took an average of seven hours to polish off the final installment in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and that 18,000 Kindle readers all highlighted the same Collins passage: “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.”
It’s unlikely there is any serious harm in sharing reading habits of this sort, especially in the aggregate, with publishers and booksellers. But it does change a very private act into a public one. And this has consequences.
Andrei Codrescu, whose Romanian-accented voice can often be heard on National Public Radio, was disconcerted when he opened a new e-book. “So now you can add to the ease of downloading an e-book the end of the illusion that it is your book,” he told his listeners. “Conformism does come of age in the most private and peaceful activities — reading a book, one of the last solitary pleasures in a world full of prompts to behave. My Kindle, sugar-coated cyanide.”
Codrescu’s point, delivered with his usual dose of hyperbole, is that the intrusion of the predilection of others may prompt readers to question their own highlighting selections and to be influenced by the larger group. Just as bestseller lists sway buying decisions, the most popular electronic highlights may change an individual’s take on a literary work.
The irony here is that the digitization of texts may also diminish the main reason for highlighting by permitting new ways of retrieving a noteworthy passage. Sophisticated search capabilities mean that finding a memorable quote may no longer require having highlighted it.
But should the conformist intrusion not manifest itself and should readers simply continue marking e-books as they did when the works were on paper, an incontrovertible challenge remains for the world of literary archaeology. For years, researchers have studied the underlining and marginalia of historically significant figures, using the pencil marks to draw conclusions about the marker. They worry now that e-book collections — existing only as computer codes — won’t be preserved like book collections of the past.
“It might be a shepherd writing in the margins about what a book means to him as he’s out tending his flock,” said Heather Jackson, a professor of English at the University of Toronto. “It might be a schoolgirl telling us how she feels. Or maybe it’s lovers who are exchanging their thoughts about what a book means to them.” If that is the case, something of great value will be lost. ◀
James McGrath Morris discusses “The Changing World of Publishing and Reading: An Author’s View of the Fast-Evolving Universe of the Written Word,” 7 p.m. Thursday, July 31, Great Hall, St. John’s College, 1160 Camino de Cruz Blanca, $7.50, ticketssantafe.org, 505-988-1234.