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Kindles will kill off the bookish loner (thank God)

Ebooks are turning reading into a communal event. And that’s a good thing

14 June 2014

8:00 AM

14 June 2014

8:00 AM

The Kindle has changed reading in so many ways. A library in your pocket rather than the hulk of a hardback. Uniform pixels where once dust motes rose from an ancient page. But the biggest change, the most fundamental one, is emotional rather than physical. Reading, which used to be the most private of activities, is now an increasingly public one.

The same internet that lets you download a book’s content also lets you upload your reaction to that content. As well as allowing you to mark passages in a book, Kindle’s highlighting feature shows you which passages other readers have marked. What’s more, Amazon ranks the results. Of the 25 most highlighted passages, all but six come from the Hunger Games trilogy. The popularity of the series is a useful reminder to adults who say ‘I wish children would read more’ when what they really mean is ‘I wish children would read more Dickens.’ Much as you might want to, you cannot programme a kid’s imagination. Nor should you try: if The Hunger Games is going to lead to David Copperfield, it’ll do so in its own good time.

But discounting the hit trilogy for a moment, it’s interesting to see which other passages are proving popular. At number two in the chart is the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice (‘It is a truth universally acknowledged …’). The same novel gives us, at number seven: ‘Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.’ Vanity, the cynic might suggest, explains some of the Kindle highlighting going on. Someone in Guatemala, for instance, has picked: ‘Remember that the event horizon is the path in space-time of light that is trying to escape from the black hole’ in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

But just as we’ve learned that the presence of that book on someone’s shelf doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve read it, so we can identify and ignore the literary poseurs in the digital world. No need to feel intimidated by the ‘look at me, I’m so into Proust’ merchants. Concentrate instead on the 4,860 Kindle users who have put Heaven is for Real (a true account of a young boy’s near-death experience) at number 23 on the chart, specifically the passage asking: ‘What is childlike humility? … It’s that precious, fleeting time before we have accumulated enough pride or position to care what other people might think.’ That’s a state we could all do with recapturing.

Inevitably Oscar Wilde shows his face, with this from The Picture of Dorian Gray: ‘I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects.’ As so often with Wilde, it sounds good but doesn’t really amount to much, so hard-headed rationalists will like seeing Sherlock Holmes six places higher at number 19: ‘It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.’

For writers, data is a large part of all this. Just as newspapers now know how many readers are clicking through to this editorial or that feature, authors can find out exactly which bits of their books are striking chords. And what comments are being added to those highlights. So it is that I encounter a reader of one of my books opining it to be ‘well nerdy’. He means it as a compliment.

Speaking solely as a reader, though, I’m coming to realise that this new communal approach is what books were always meant to be about from the start. The first and most powerful bond is between author and reader: mind talking to mind. And if you want to keep that bond private, inside your own head, then worry not, the Kindle will let you: simply adjust the settings to stop your highlights being made public.

But much of my childhood was spent nose-deep in books, the stories and facts they offered up driving me deeper into myself, into solitude. Chicken and egg, of course: did I become a loner because I read or read because I was a loner? Impossible to say. All that’s certain is that once the process has started, a love of reading — for all that it’s a crucial and joyous part of maturing — can also nurture a preference for pages over people, for reliable and manageable books rather than that awkward and unpredictable thing known as the real world. Most readers get the balance just right. But in some children it can exacerbate problems.

So if today’s kids have socialising built in to their reading devices as a matter of course, that can only be a good thing. The instinct to share the pleasure a great book has brought you has always been there, though up till now it’s been limited to those people you encounter in ‘meat space’, the physical world of friendships and parties and (at the formalised end of the spectrum) book clubs. Now, however, you can swap thoughts and compare notes with people you’ve never met. The unifying effect of a great novel or a life-changing non-fiction book, the number of people you can reach, will be magnified both in numerical terms — sales of the Kindle are well into the millions — and in the variety of those people, positioned as they are all over the globe. You can even, should it be your thing, discuss space-time with people in Guatemala.

‘Only connect,’ E.M. Forster tells us in Howards End. ‘Live in fragments no longer.’ It’s a passage that, at the time of writing, has been highlighted by 31 Kindle readers.

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