I’ll admit it: I was surprised when our recent post about the annotation abilities (or lack thereof) of various e-readers attracted so much attention. At the time, I wasn’t really sure that anyone cared. Boy, was I wrong.

In fact, a Berlin-based reader by the name of Matthew Bostock found the subject of our post so intriguing, he decided to write something of an annotation manifesto in response. We hope you enjoy it, and as always, we hope you’ll share your thoughts (pro or con) in the comments.   —D.E., ed.   

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Three Reasons You Should Give E-Reader Annotation a Second Look

by Matthew Bostock ]

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I was fascinated to see an article here on Teleread last week regarding digital annotation. For me, this topic is one full of immense possibility. But after reading it through and looking at the comments, I came to the conclusion that, amongst diluted split opinion and some focus on hardware, many seemed to have missed the point.

Translating the act of annotating physical books to the digital experience is all good and well, but isn’t there more we could do? Isn’t there more we could dream about? We’re talking about e-readers here—small devices that are connected to something that has the potential to truly evolve the entire concept of digital reading. I’m referring, of course, to the web.

The photo featured at the top of this post is a picture of James Joyce’s Ulysses, read and annotated by Caterina Fake, the co-founder of Flickr. She wished that the shards of brilliance she’d preserved between the pages could have been shared with other people for the purpose of informing, discussing and understanding—things of true worth.

This, in my opinion, is where digital annotation really becomes interesting: If we share what we highlight with other people, and bring a discussion right into the margin of a book, what do we have, and what have we done? We have added value to the digital reading experience. And looking at annotation in this way, there’s a clear reason why we should give it a little more thought.

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Discussing what we’ve read with other people, or interpreting selective passages within a group, is a concept as old as reading itself. By digitally annotating a book and making it viewable to our entire social graph, we take this concept to the next level. We bring the discussions, the book clubs and the brainstorming right to our palms. We expand our conversations to all corners of the earth. People can conceptually gather around a book, and with the integration of comments and likes, help it blossom into something unimaginable.


Highlighting passages and sharing them with other people helps shed light on a book in different ways, at different intervals of time. The life of a book extends far past its publication date, and everything caught between the pages is given a second chance to breathe. As an author, your book has longevity—a true pulse on the web. As a reader, highlights from other people give you a fresh perspective on a book months after you’ve finished reading it yourself. In short, someone may have caught what you may have missed.


We choose to friend and follow people we know, or like, or love, or find interesting. A lot of what we listen to, or watch, or eat is recommended to us by other people. And you know what? It works. We share things in common with them. By unveiling highlights and comments, we create the most vibrant, personalised book recommendation system in existence. Other people can also give you an insight into a book far better than a cover and summary can, and finding what books are most popular amongst your friends always unearths some gems.

Should we care about e-reader annotation? It’s not really about agreeing or disagreeing with it, it’s more about exploring what it could mean for the future. At Readmill we always say, “Why make a book digital, and not make it shareable?” I think this concept is such an obvious one to explore. Although reading has a personal, solitary purpose, sharing annotations with other people makes a lot of sense. What I choose to annotate isn’t just limited to my imagination or my copy of the book anymore, it’s viewable and open for anyone to interpret.

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Matthew Bostock is a writer, reader and overall communications enthusiast living and working in Berlin for Readmill. He’s partial to Twitter, and you can find him scattered elsewhere on the web as matthewcbostock. You can follow Matthew’s writing on Twitter, and you can follow his reading on Readmill.