Writing in Books, and Kindle Public Notes

Ok, I’ll admit it. I love writing in my books. It’s my preferred way of interacting with the words on a page — the physical act of putting pencil to paper is sometimes the only way I can really think an idea through. So this week’s article from The New York Times (“Book Lovers Fear Dim Future for Notes in Margins”) caught my attention. As it turns out, the future doesn’t appear as dim as the title might suggest (example: “The digital revolution is a good thing for the physical object … As more people see historical artifacts in electronic form, the more they’re going to want to encounter the real object”), but that’s okay. There are a few bits of entertaining book trivia worth sharing.

For example, the Newberry Library collection in Chicago noted in the article has a number of famous old books, including a copy of “The Federalist” with Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten notes, which I think is very much as cool as it sounds.

Reading is a necessarily private experience, a transaction between a person and the printed words within a book. But it needn’t be a purely internal process. The historian Studs Terkel felt “that reading a book should not be a passive exercise, but rather a raucous conversation.” A great deal could be learned from books than simply the words on the page; what occurs on the margins can lend insight into the habits and attitudes (good and bad, insightful and dull) of readers in a given historical time. Sociologically, it could be an interesting area of study (for someone else to study, not me). H.J. Jackson (Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books, Yale University Press 2001) adds that,”marginalia reveals a pattern of emotional reactions among everyday readers that might otherwise be missed, even by literary professionals.”

The term “marginalia” is often associated with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, himself a prolific margin writer, in the sort of way that an activity existed long before someone came up with a name for it. Speaking of which, the article thoughtfully includes “Marginalia” by Billy Collins, which rhapsodizes that act of marking up pages which librarians must hate so much:

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Not surprisingly, Mark Twain had many opinions which he wanted to share, even if only with the pages of his book*. Also not surprisingly, his opinions could be quite caustic: “A cat could do better literature than this,” he onces writes of a particularly bland offering. That’s just silly though. It’s not like we’re talking about monkeys at typewriters here.

In a related piece, The New Republic (“Amazon’s Public Notes and the Future of Reading”) discusses the implications for reader notes in light of the Amazon’s newly released Public Notes feature. While some have bemoaned the inability of ebooks to accommodate the pencil-to-paper interaction of reader and text, something like Amazon’s Public Notes does appear to be a step towards turning that solitary experience of reading into something inherently more social. Any Kindle user so inclined can choose to share their notes and highlights.**

In addition to a few gripes about the limitations — such as the 100-character limit for all public notes — the more interesting question raised in the TNR article is how note-sharing might change the way readers decide to think about note-taking.

“But another, bigger part of the problem with Public Notes is that marginalia has always been primarily a private form of communication, like a diary: a place for readers to mark lines with a particular personal meaning or to jot notes to themselves … To open it up for public consumption requires a rethinking of its purpose.”

Would we self-censor our note-taking habits, if we knew that we’d be publishing those half-articulated thoughts jotted down while reading to anonymous Internet users, as opposed to having our innermost thoughts safely locked away within the pages of our book on a bookshelf? Perhaps. Then again, maybe the relative anonymity of the Internet means that such self-censoring is moot. Public Notes is an interesting social experiment well worth trying. Maybe it’ll provide some kind of insight into the collective Kindle readers’ consciousness, some fleeting sense of online zeitgest, or maybe just some really good Amazon market research. Who knows?

*The Mark Twain House blog has some great images of Mark Twain marginalia.

* *See here for Amazon’s running list of the most publicly noted Kindle books. Sherlock Holmes, Alice in Wonderland, and Stieg Larsson are in the early lead.


Surprise me


I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

What I’m Reading Now:

Supercommunicators by Charles Duhigg

Related Articles

Have questions or ideas or requests for working together?

Get in touch