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In the Margins

The many problems with Amazon’s new ‘Public Notes’ feature.

In the latest installment of its occasional series on how technology is ruining our lives, The New York Times reports on a conference about to be held by the Caxton Club, a group of Chicago bibliophiles, on how annotating books “enhance[s] the reading experience.” Alongside some entertaining literary tidbits (Nelson Mandela wrote his own name in the margin of Julius Caesar next to the line “Cowards die many times before their deaths”), we find in the article the usual doomsday musings on the fate of marginalia in the digital age. The Caxtonites, needless to say, are not into the Kindle. “People will always find a way to annotate electronically,” says G. Thomas Tanselle, an adjunct professor of English at Columbia University. “But there is the question of how it is going to be preserved.”

Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that the vast majority of marginalia are not worth preserving. What struck me about the Times’ account of marginalia was the emphasis on its use in creating a shared reading experience. The writer Studs Terkel, we’re told, used to scold friends who returned borrowed books to him without marking them up, telling them that reading should be a “raucous conversation,” not a solitary endeavor. In her 2001 book Marginalia, H.J. Jackson, a professor of English at the University of Toronto and one of the Caxton Club conference participants, extols scribblings for what they reveal about a society’s common readers: “a shepherd writing in the margins about what a book means to him as he’s out tending his flock,” or “a schoolgirl telling us how she feels,” or “lovers who are exchanging their thoughts about what a book means to them.”

Far from ending the conversation, however, e-books offer an unprecedented opportunity to peek over the reader’s shoulder. Last week, Amazon announced the creation of a platform for “Public Notes,” which can be entered on the Kindle and then published for others to see. This announcement was greeted with excitement by a few bloggers, who envisioned some interesting ways in which Public Notes could enhance the experience of reading: What if Rachel Maddow, say, were to annotate a book by Glenn Beck? The potential for political books is huge: Who wouldn’t be curious about Al Gore’s notes on George W. Bush’s Decision Points, or Bush’s on Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir? In the literary world, the possibilities are endless: Cynthia Ozick on Henry James, Zadie Smith on Salman Rushdie, Gary Shteyngart on Philip Roth …

But celebrity notes are one thing; the general reader is another. Jackson opened her book about marginalia with a description of a hypothetical paperback left behind on a bus: dog-eared, highlighted, with an odd and usually disparaging note here and there. Unfortunately, this is the equivalent of most of what I found perusing Amazon’s Public Notes. But the first problem was the sheer difficulty of using the platform. I downloaded a couple of the titles on Amazon’s list of “Books with the Most Public Notes”—Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Pride and Prejudice, both available for free in Kindle format—to my iPhone, where I normally read Kindle books. (I own a first-generation Kindle, which Amazon has rendered obsolescent by no longer issuing software updates for it, but that’s a complaint for another time.) When I opened them, I was able to see passages that other readers had highlighted, but no notes. In order to view Public Notes, according to Amazon’s FAQ, you have to be using the latest Kindle model, running the most recent version of the software. So much for opening up the platform to a wide group of readers. I was able to discover, however, that 3,117 readers had highlighted Jane Austen’s famous first sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Off I went to the home of a friend in possession of a brand-new Kindle. We downloaded the Carroll and Austen books. No notes. After a phone call to customer service, we learned that this fresh-out-of-the-box Kindle was somehow not running the latest version of the software. We upgraded—a slow process. We “followed” (Twitter-style) one of the note writers, which Amazon says is also obligatory. Still no notes! At this point, after we had been poking around on the Kindle site for an hour or so, my friend discovered a workaround: By clicking on the number of note-writers to bring up a list of their names and then clicking on a small + sign next to their names, we could view the notes on the website. Voila—no Kindle required. (Try it here for Pride and Prejudice: At the right of the screen, where it says “x customers have Public Notes,” click on the x number.)

After all that, I wish I could report that the notes were brilliant, revelatory, worth every frustrating click. Alas. First of all, Amazon registers people as having made Public Notes for a book when they have simply turned on the Public Notes feature. For example, the site says that 50 people have made notes on The New Oxford American Dictionary (which comes free on new Kindles), but, when you call up the list of people, each has a 0 in the Notes column. In other words, this dictionary is listed as the book with the greatest number of notes, when, in fact, it has none.

Once I actually managed to find some notes, they reminded me of those dark corners of Twitter where no one seems to be able to spell or complete a sentence. The first note listed on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was by someone identifying himself only as Eugene. Commenting on the line “‘And even if my head would go through,’ thought poor Alice, ‘it would be of very little use without my shoulders,’” Eugene wrote: “Head without shoulders - sorry sight :( ” The notes on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes were a little more satisfying: Someone named Gregory Gridin queried a reference to the “Trepov murder.” But most of the readers who wrote decipherable comments were simply giving a thumbs-up to their favorite passages.

Some of this isn’t the users’ fault: Amazon has chosen to limit each note to 100 characters, which the FAQ also doesn’t advertise—I learned it only from the blog of an author who hopes to interact with his readers using Public Notes. (So far, he’s the only person who has made notes on his book.) 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. (I’m always wary of lending out a book that I’ve marked up, for fear of what my notes might inadvertently reveal.) To open it up for public consumption requires a rethinking of its purpose. A line from Alice sticks in my head: “Once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?’” I’m not sure what I gained from discovering that 1,027 other Kindle users highlighted this line—other than the knowledge that they, too, might have wondered the same thing.

In a world where more people are reading on devices that are more user-friendly, there might be possibilities for meaningful dialogue. The website Diigo offers one alternate model: a downloadable toolbar that allows users to mark up Web pages. (See my annotations on the Times article here.) GoodReads, a Facebook-like forum for commenting on and recommending books, is another. But, without the filter of history, the modern-day equivalents of Jackson’s shepherd, schoolgirl, and lovers are a lot less intriguing. Maybe some literary scholar will eventually comb through the Public Notes on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for insight into why twenty-first-century readers worldwide gobbled up a crazed saga of violence against women. In the meantime, though, what we’ve got is more like that paperback left on the bus.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic

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