The Highlight Function on Your eReader: Love It or Hate It?

It’s a little ironic: technology meant for convenience in our ever-faster paced world actually invites me to take my time.

When I first started reading e-books, I was puzzled, then curious, then annoyed by the paragraphs that appeared with lines under them stating how many people had highlighted a particular passage.

For starters, it broke my reading stride. Furthermore, why did I care about what, say, 150 other strangers deemed worthy of highlighting? Did it matter whether or not I, too, found or didn’t find the same text to be notable? What was the point in this collective sharing? Apparently, I wasn’t alone in my annoyance.

A quick poll of my Facebook friends yielded comments like:

“It distracts me when I see passages that have already been highlighted.”

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“Never use them. Get annoyed when I turn on by mistake.”

“I don’t use it, and I don’t want to see it. I only want to see someone else’s highlights if I’m not prepared for a test. And yes, it does make me pause and I lose where I was and wonder why it was highlighted.”

“I hate the highlighting feature! I never use it and never highlight . . . it’s the worst when you are reading on your phone and accidentally turn it on.”

To be fair, reading has always been an extremely private pursuit for me. I never cared what Oprah chose to read, and while I was in three book clubs when book clubs became all the rage, I only stuck around for one or two meetings of each. I scoffed at my mom’s book club, which seemed to exist only as an excuse to drink wine and have discussions about their own lives and how they related to the book.

Yet I never liked the antithesis of that type of club either: book industry people like myself getting together to one-up each other’s trenchant comments or discuss the book with a cerebral, critical eye. I’d had my share of those kind of discussion in creative writing and English classes in college, and if I wanted critique I’d read a review. The only person I really ever discussed books with was my best friend and, even then, in small doses.

Ironically, when books started getting reading group guides, I was one of the first copywriters to pen them. While I put a lot of thought into the questions I asked – both of the author and the reader – I still always wondered why anyone would want to talk about any of it.

The experience of reading something another person had written – of entering into a kind of contract with them, of giving over hours of my life to enter the lives they’d created – felt extremely intimate.

The thoughts and emotions that came along with that experience, too, never seemed like something I wanted to share. It’s so rare in our world to have a secret; my reading life was one of mine.

All that said, I recently started using the highlight function on my e-reader.

Not because I have any desire to have my favorite passages quantified, to be part of the masses. Instead, I use it to take pause when something in a book moves me: whether it’s because the writing itself is so wonderful or because it resonates with something within me or my life.

After highlighting, I tend to read it a second time and think a little more deeply on it. It slows me down and allows me to savor the words. It’s a little ironic in a way: technology meant for convenience in our ever-faster paced world actually invites me to take my time.

I like to imagine that I might one day cull some of these choice highlights into a collection for myself, though I doubt I will. Will they, more likely, just live on in the gadget itself, like so many photos on our smart phones?

Or maybe I’ll remember something years from now that I’ll want to share with my daughter, or find words that I’ll turn to when I’m facing something momentous in my life: a loss, a joy, a sea change.

How do you feel about the highlighting function in your eReader? Do you use it? Love it? Hate it?

About Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

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