Friday, September 10, 2010

Group Highlights

One weird thing about reading books on an e-reader is that you can see what other people have chosen to underline when they were reading the same book on other e-readers. You can even see how many people have underlined a particular sentence.

I have found that I can easily guess which sentences will be underlined by following this one simple rule:

The underlined sentences will be the most general, trite, "philosophical" statements.

Here is an active learning exercise for my readers. Which sentence(s) below would you predict will/should be underlined?

The old man stared at the lobster on his plate, wondering what the lobster was thinking when he (she?) clambered into the slatted wooden trap. Did all lobsters eventually end up in a trap? Did any lobster ever die a natural death? And he wondered: Was death somehow more natural than life? Even as we lose our grip on the tissue of life, like the sunset, the inevitable, beautiful, tragic sunset loses its grip on the horizon, we are all lobsters. How strange that the sunset today was the color of the dead lobster on his plate.

Did you guess the "Even as we lose our grip.." sentence ± the question before it? A+++++ for you! Any other sentence: underline FAIL.

I have never been a very diligent or systematic underliner, or even a highlighter, and I seem to have missed out on some important lesson about What To Highlight.

When I was in college, I took a literature course that surveyed the Great Works, from the dawn of time to the recent past. I had read many of these Great Works before I got to college, but I had read them in isolation. I took the class because I wanted to learn about these books from Great Scholars. What I mostly learned was that there was symbolism lurking in the prose, unbeknownst to me when I read these works on my own.

I also noticed that my classmates arrived in class each day with heavily highlighted and annotated books, and they further annotated the books as the professor pointed out key passages. I tried to do this, but I was never very good at it. I tended to underline sentences that I liked for aesthetic reasons, missing profound statements about life and death and war and peace and lobsters.

Armed with a new realization about the utility of highlighting, a friend and I decided to annotate the paperback collection of used and abandoned Great Books that resided in a study room in our college residence. Hoping that some future undergraduate who took this same course would read these particular books, we decided to make up strange and unlikely annotations, in the further hope that these hypothetical future readers would be entertained, or, I admit, confused.

For example, we would underline a sentence like this one from War and Peace -- "Prince Vassily always spoke languidly, like an actor repeating his part in an old play." -- and write something in the margin like "IMPORTANT seagull imagery!"

I was reminded of this juvenile impulse recently as I was reading yet another e-book that had yet another trite phrase underlined. I felt the urge to do some subversive underlining of text that apparently had no particular significance, just on the off chance that it would make someone wonder what they were missing.

So far I have suppressed that urge, and I may yet become a sincere underliner, as I sometimes find marking text useful for later reference if I am going to use a snippet in a blog post.

For example, I was recently struck by two things on one page of the novel The Perfect Reader by Maggie Pouncey (Note: This is most definitely not a recommendation that anyone read this book).

One, not (yet) underlined bit of text -- but a possible candidate for underlining were I to keep track of the Stupidest Sentences In This Book -- is: "Manu-script. Funny the feminists hadn't had their way with that one yet."

Another, underlined by someone (not me): "How one knew and recognized handwriting, as one knew and recognized a voice in the distance, or on the other end of the phone. These details of person-hood we learned and memorized, as if access to that information meant we knew and understood one another. We felt a sense of ownership of such things."

Too bad the author doesn't have a sense of ownership of complete sentences. Or feminism.

And this: "But the death of a parent is a loss of self. A loss of history. Who else really remembers your childhood but your parents?"


In the book, My Hollywood by Mona Simpson, were I to underline text, I would go for this bit, when the woman narrator muses about her struggles to have a career as a composer/musician and a wife/mother: "You can be both! my mother had said. But my mother was mentally ill."

For some reason that I can't begin to understand, 23 people have underlined this text in Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: "And that's what immortality means to me, Joshie. It means selfishness. My generation's belief that each one of us matters more than you or anyone else would think." Am I missing something?

But, just as my cynicism was deepening about all these anonymous highlighting people, I found some text that has been highlighted by 23 people (the same ones??), perhaps just because it is beautiful text: "The love I felt for her on that train ride had a capital and provinces, parishes and a Vatican, an orange planet and many sullen moons -- it was systemic and it was complete."



Anonymous said...

"For some reason that I can't begin to understand, 23 people have underlined this text in Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: "And that's what immortality means to me, Joshie. It means selfishness. My generation's belief that each one of us matters more than you or anyone else would think." Am I missing something?"

Appears very likely to be alluding to God/religion, but I don't know the full context.

Anonymous said...

Scholars of literature don't highlight phrases in novels (solely) because they're enjoyable. Perhaps someone's doing a study on the significance of French language in War and Peace, or wishes to highlight certain sentence structures used by Proust. So to the lay person it would seem that the highlighting choices are arbitrary or trite, but in fact they could be data points used in a groundbreaking (or, you know, mildly interesting) linguistic or literary study.

Writing nonsensical footnotes in literature texts? Kind of funny. In the same way a literature student might wish to write nonsensical equations in the margins of a physics text.

Hypothetical Engineer said...

I've never been able to underline well either. Everytime I come back and re-read it I would rather have underlined a different passage. What I underline apparently changes with my mood too much. I need the ability to underline something, and attach a tag to it. These tags could be something like "angry quote" or "think about later".

Anonymous said...

We are all lobsters.

Now excuse me while I go back to work. That detritus ain't going to eat itself!

(This post was a great way to start a Friday).

Anonymous said...

I turned off group highlights within hours of it appearing on my kindle. It was way too annoying.

Anonymous said...

Odd, I've always had too much of a vague sense of respects for books I like to write on them.

Mordecai said...

This is the first explanation of highlighting that I think I've understood -- you're implying that it's a part of the academic game people play with literature, and that if you're not invested in the game that highlighting won't seem meaningful?

That just as "P implies Q" doesn't seem natural until you've written a hundred proofs, "great seagull imagery" doesn't seem meaningful until you've written a hundred papers?

Now I'd be interested in seeing what a skillfully highlighted book looks like. All the ones I've had secondhand seemed inexpertly done.

Female Science Professor said...

That's great, except that I don't think I meant what you think I meant. There is very intense dolphin imagery in your comment, though.

Actually, I think that people (who are not reading for research purposes) highlight what they either find personally meaningful (words to live by..) or (to be cynical for just a moment) what they THINK should be meaningful.

Anonymous said...

A staggering number of people seem to have attempted to look up words in the dictionary and accidentally highlighted the word + half of the next sentence.

Female Science Professor said...

In fact, in a passage that I read soon after writing this post, Shteyngart takes aim at highlighters, although no one has underlined this yet:

EUNI-TARD: Right, because only you and dad can be saints ministering unto Jerusalem.
EUNI-TARD: Look it up, it's in your bible. You probably have it highlighted in twenty different colors.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

In general, I'm with CPP on this one. But, speaking as an English professor, I think underlining passages that appeal for aesthetic reasons would be far more useful than marking the "philosophical insights."

Anonymous said...

I've always regarded marking up a book as a sin---it renders the book less valuable. For one thing, it is very difficult to re-read the book without being distracted by the markup. I've also noticed when buying used books that the highlighting being done (particularly in science books) is often the least useful information in the book. Since so few people highlight well, what is the point of doing it?

I was very pleased that my son changed schools this year, thus avoiding an English teacher who requires his students to highlight novels. Of course, he might get another such teacher in a state of sin at the new school, but it is less likely, as the public school has to reuse books.

marci_b said...

I stick to a non-highlighting dogma, generally. One of my professors revealed yesterday that he never annotates articles, so I feel slightly more validated than my highlighter-crazy classmates.

Mommyprof said...

I read this out loud to Spouse, and we both had a good laugh. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the movie "Heathers," and how one character highlighted the word "Eskimo" in another's book.

From IMDB (

J.D.: Wanna go out tonight? Catch a movie? Miniature golf?
Veronica Sawyer: I was thinking more along the lines of slitting Heather Duke's wrists open, making it look like suicide.
J.D.: Ah, now you're talking. I can be up for that. I've already started underlining meaningful passages in her copy of Moby Dick, if you know what I mean.

Bagelsan said...

I've also noticed when buying used books that the highlighting being done (particularly in science books) is often the least useful information in the book.

Used textbooks in general mostly have the first sentence of every page or paragraph highlighted -- yanno, where the most basic summary of the following information is. Helpful! :p

joyous726 said...

People that highlight irrationally irritate me. Probably because I always stunk at it, too.

And I am disturbed by the new knowledge that you can see what other people highlight on your kindle. And as I will be likely getting one soon, I am grateful to know you can turn that feature off.


Anonymous said...

Very amusing. I have printed out a journal article, highlighted it, and filed it away, only to within six months print out the same article, high light it, file it, recover the original article, and discover I had annotated many completely different things. Ah, the fallibility of memory and the shifting focus of research.

Contrary wise, I feel aghast at highlighting in in works of literature. As someone said, it feels disrespectful. And highlighting in text books by students is always good for a laugh. Like when you see a big yellow line over the bold vocabulary words. Or a page so covered in pink ink it looks like play stationary.

Anonymous said...

I used to think that books were pristine and I should not deface them by writing in them and I, too, used to question what the heck everybody was highlighting with their multicolored pens and markers in their textbooks and class notes.

I have since changed my mind. I started highlighting my books after reading this:

The point that the time you save by annotating all your books is worth the cost of the book (assuming you believe that writing in the book devalues it - which I don't anymore, at least when it's my book that I annotated) hit home with me.

I now highlight and annotate as a learning and documenting aid. When I flip back through a book in which I forgot what the key points were, I can quickly glance at my highlighted passages to find out what I extracted from it when I had read it, in 1/100th of the time. With so much information and such a poor memory, this type of repeat exposure is the only way to cement certain ideas in my mind.

Also, as a scientist, I now find highlighting invaluable to my research. Yes, what I see as important in a research paper changes over time, but regardless, highlighting important points saves me massive amounts of time when I go back through papers looking for appropriate data references and citations.

Finally, I sometimes highlight quotes that I particularly enjoy. I have a vague plan that someday, when I write a book/article/blog/whatever pontificating about the meaning of life, I can draw on these quotes from my favorite texts to enhance my message.

I never used to highlight because I didn't know what I should highlight. Now I know and I would never go back.