The earthquakes of the digital age have rocked the literary world. Writer, academic and curator Gianluigi Ricuperati proposes a new, post-literary approach to books – a form of “ultraviolent”, collective reading that uses e-book highlights, forcing books to reveal their inner shadows: a process that is at once superficial and profound.1
“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.” George Orwell, 1984
George Orwell’s iconic – and self-reflexive – phrase is one of the most highlighted lines in the e-book edition of 1984. Today, as words migrate from page to screen and literature becomes digital, more and more of what we read is in the form of e-books. The format introduces new functions, such as integrated dictionary searching, personalised font, point size, and colours – but most importantly, e-books are connected. As each person highlights what she reads on a Kindle, her interaction with the book is saved on Amazon’s database: a unique invisible fingerprint across digital pages. Billions of these interactions – constituting a new literary big data – are being collected, revealing the metabolism of humanity digesting literature together.
From the Talmud to textbooks, literature has always been highlighted and annotated with marginalia or scholia. The earliest, dating to the 4th century BC, are handwritten reminder notes, grammatical, critical or explanatory comments inserted into the margins of ancient manuscripts to enhance understanding, either for the annotator or subsequent readers. Throughout history, highlighting has been a tool for engaging with literature: refracting embedded ideas through a personal lens. The contours of a unique composition emerge from an individual’s process of reading and annotating – whether the motifs of a novel, the inspirations of a biography or the concepts of a textbook. Pen in hand, we digest what we read.
Today that is expanding. Our individual engagement has become collective: we read, line and share comments together. Annotations are the glowing hyperlinks in a network of readers.
What passages do we highlight? How many people highlight the same passages? What is the EKG of a book; the ebbs and flows of its highlights? What words are we most motivated by? Do core themes emerge? How does this data map onto literary preferences, demographics or social networks? Are there many ways of reading a single book?
One hot minute: Lolita in 60 Seconds
What does it mean to read a novel in the era of distraction? How can we combine the desire to know the world through words – the habit of being readers, of living in literature – with the fragmented, exciting disorder, and the interweavings of verbal obsession, of the post-digital world?
A few years ago, reading a novel by Charles Yu, a writer from Los Angeles, I had a ringing epiphany. Yu’s book was appropriately titled How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. I was late to review this new book for a newspaper, so I read it all in one go, one evening, on a Kindle. In so doing, I discovered the “highlight” function. Returning to the book with the tip of my index finger, I read not only the passages I had highlighted, but those that other readers had, too. Having read the novel rapidly, the highlighted sections presented themselves as a quick, violent and intense dip – not a summary or even another form of text analysis but rather a filleting, like the removal of the spine from a freshly caught fish.
In mid-2014, I repeated the experiment, this time with a contemporary classic, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I wrote to Claudia Zunino, a literary critic and Nabokov scholar. She accepted my offer of studying Nabokov’s classic through its highlights.2
Claudia seemed concerned by the process, which did not surprise me. This kind of collective, “ultraviolent” reading as aided by the algorithm of Amazon Kindle is an affront to everything that humanities departments and the ancien régime of the literary world value. For a few weeks after our reading, I heard nothing from her. After this long period of silence a letter arrived.
The truth is that after a careful examination of the digital highlights in Lolita I think I can say that they are neither a summary of the book nor even a call to its structure. Tracks are scattered, the result of the immediacy of the gesture of the reader, and have nothing programmatic about them.
One hypothesis may be this: the set of different emphases gives rise to an eidolon, a kind of internal shadow of the book, a refractive index of a whole intellectual and emotional perception of the reader that catalyses an image of what the reader, or readers, perceive to be the soul of the book.
To better understand the intensity and quality of this prismatic eidolon, or inner shadow, that digital highlights unwittingly provoke in the critical consciousness in the literature of our post-literary era, I present below the highlighted sentences from Nabokov’s work, which I have placed in descending order, from most popular to least:3
There are two kinds of visual memory: one when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory of your mind, with your eyes open (and then I see Annabel in such general terms as: “honey-colored skin”, “thin arms”, “brown bobbed hair”, “long lashes”, “big bright mouth”); and the other when you instantly evoke, with shut eyes, on the dark innerside of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors (and this is how I see Lolita).
A change of environment is the traditional fallacy upon which doomed loves, and lugs, rely.
We loved each other with a premature love, marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives.
Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to design as “nymphets”.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Now. Breathe deeply. Look around. Think of the literary world. Think of the world as it is today. Think of the production of knowledge – of the heritage of time that accumulates in generations. Think about the meaning that we gave and give to the term “tradition”. Think about how tired you are of hearing about “innovation” (you’re probably nostalgic, idealistic academic types). Return to the hours spent on beds or carpets or turf focusing on the long set of signs that has represented for so long the ideal form in which to converge and deposit the plurality of knowledge and the singularity of human parables. Think of the raised eyebrows of the many fans of literature that you have encountered in your path, and reflect on the experience you have just had. You sank deeply into the waters of one of the most important literary monuments of modernity in a way that modernity did not foresee; could never foresee. You’ve learned something. You’ve felt something. You’ve sucked something out of all this. You’ve been sucked into something.
 Two paragraphs of this text were co-written with Matthew Claudel. The author would like to thank Carlo Ratti and the Senseable City Lab at MIT.
 We agreed that we would examine four e-book versions: Odyssey Editions’, published July 2010, which at the time had 745 emphases; the second Vintage International edition, published August 2010, with 2,617; the critical edition of The Annotated Lolita, Vintage International, published August 2011, with 191; and the Penguin edition, published July 2012, with 441.
 Taken from the second Vintage International edition, the digital version of the most widely read in absolute terms.