The Social Life of Books

Kindle
It's weird getting nostalgic over a first-generation Kindle (image source: Reuters)

The Social Life of Books
originally published in MediaPost's Social Media Insider

As a Kindle user since its first model debuted, I've marveled how it has changed my reading habits, and in some ways has changed my life. Some of the most profound changes are the social ones.

When I first started reading my Kindle, I was often riding Manhattan's subways, and I realized that I'd lost a valuable form of social expression. Once, when I was reading a paperback book, a friend of the author's struck up a conversation with me, and I've had other such serendipitous conversations. You lose that with electronic readers; the statement is not about what you're reading but the device with which you're reading it. I'd love to see a Kindle case that displays the cover of my book on the back of it.

Despite the loss of self-expression, there are several digital ways that Amazon makes books social:

·     You can highlight passages or take notes and choose to make them public at kindle.amazon.com.

·     When reading books, you can choose to view the most popular highlights from other readers. Personally, I find this distracting, in the same way that I hated using second-hand textbooks in college. But the so-called wisdom of crowds can draw your attention to passages you might have glossed over initially, and the popular highlights for a book can add to the experience once you finish a book.

·     Amazon sometimes lets you lend books to others for two-week windows. The only catch is that most books that I own don't allow lending. Maybe I just prefer books from stingier publishers.

·     It's easy to share your favorite passages in other digital media. When I published a review of the 28 books I read about Africa in the past several months, I was able to take passages from Kindle highlights and sprinkle them in.

·     You can share passages directly from the Kindle to Twitter or Facebook. It's cumbersome today, but perhaps will work better when Amazon starts having Android-powered devices.

An added bonus with the Kindle is that anything publicly shared is available for anyone to see, presenting a fascinating anthropology, something that wasn't possible when bibliophiles kept handwritten notes' in books' margins. Here are six revealing tidbits from the Kindle's popularity rankings:

1) Timothy Ferriss is bigger than Jesus. Really. His book "The 4-Hour Body" is the most highlighted of all time, ahead of the Bible. Granted, there's only one version of his book right now, but four versions of the Bible in the top 10.

2) Timothy Ferriss is more quotable than Jesus. Among the top 25 most-highlighted passages of all time, there are none from the Bible. There are four from Ferriss. There isn't a Bible highlight in the top 100. Perhaps some think highlighting the Bible is a sin. I'd still pick Jesus when it comes to substance, though. When a quote from Ferriss says to "eat the same few meals over and over again," it makes me yearn for anyone else's gospel.

3) The Bible does alright, though, with 5 of the top 25 highlighted passages coming from David Platt's "Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream." One such passage has him saying, "This is how God works," so with that kind of authoritative position on divine actions, I'm not surprised a higher power put him on the bestseller lists. Another 7 of the top 25 are from "Eat Pray Love, "which I'm assuming from the title is 33% about praying.

4) Jane Austen wrote the most highlighted passage of all time, from "Pride and Prejudice": "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." She also owns the number-five slot. I wonder how many people truly love the quote as opposed to those who just think they should highlight it.

5) People prefer posting public notes about the classics. The four books with the most public notes were written in the 1800s ("The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," "Dracula," "Pride and Prejudice"), with Stieg Larsson's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" breaking the streak in the fifth slot.

6) It doesn't take much to make a book rank higher on the list of those with public notes. For instance, I took notes on "97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement." On Monday, I made the notes public and became the first person to do so for that work; it then ranked 4,179th in books with public notes. I did the same thing for "Griftopia: Bubble Machines," "Vampire Squids," and "The Long Con That is Breaking America"; as the tenth person to make notes public, it moved from 361 to 307.

As much as I love the Kindle, I miss the way print books liberate you to share books, have them signed, donate them, mark them up with your own hand, and even forget about them in some hotel room without worrying about it. Despite e-readers' drawbacks, their portability and accessibility won me over, and their potential for socializing books can make them valuable in ways we haven't yet anticipated.