Amazon, the king of the eBook world, has been publishing data about the habits of its readers. The fact that “your eBook is reading you,” as the headline of a recent Wall Street Journal story put it, means that we have access to self-knowledge that’s pretty interesting.
And maybe a little embarrassing.
After we saw the first Hunger Games movie in theaters, my husband, who was new to the series, decided to get the second book on Kindle, “Catching Fire,” and give it a read.
A couple days later, he leaned over and pointed at his Kindle, incredulous.
“15,000 people highlighted this?”
This was the following line from that book: “Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them.”
I’m no literature snob, but I value good writing and appreciate some good book-born wisdom. I’d read all three books a couple months before my husband picked them up and when I read that line, it hadn’t risen very high in either category for me, either.
I shrugged. This is a popular series and a fun one, I told him. It’s not like it’s the most highlighted passage in the whole Kindle library.
But lo and behold, it is. Amazon keeps a ranking of the lines most often highlighted by its users, and the line sits comfortably at the top, with, now, 17,784 reader highlights.
In second place is the famous first line from “Pride and Prejudice.” Nice. But the third, fourth, fifth and sixth most highlighted lines are, again, from a book in the Hunger Games series, and, again — forgive me, fans — not exactly literature gold.
But is this really that surprising? Only if you thought, like I did, that a list of the most highlighted eBook passages would chronicle the most vibrant and moving passages in literature. Recalibrate your expectations to fit the reality of a book world ruled — like all things — by popular culture, and it makes perfect sense.
So then I think, what’s more embarrassing: that a mediocre line from “Hunger Games” would rank no. 1 in Amazon’s list of the most highlighted passages of all time, or that I’d be naive enough to expect any different?
Definitely the latter.
What factors go into Amazon’s highlighted passage ranking? More data would be nice. For now, we can speculate. I, Teacher’s response to this post in the comments gives some good leads:
This is merely a function of where The Hunger Games happened to fall in the history of technology. You’ll notice that the other oft-highlighted passages are from Pride and Prejudice–a text that comes free with the device. Had the Kindle revolution happened ten years ago, the text would probably be Harry Potter; five years ago, the Kindle would have pointed to Twilight.
If this stat still holds true a century from now, and some pop-author is the century’s most highlighted, then we can discuss people’s low-brow literary tastes, but don’t forget that old doesn’t equal good: Doyle’s work is in the top list too, and he was just the pop-pulp-lit. of his day.