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.   

* * *


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

by Matthew Bostock ]

 * * *

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.

* * *


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.

* * *

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.


  1. Exactly, Wilson.
    It’s all about separating the reading from the sharing. To recap over a book after reading it, or to see what your friends pulled out from the pages, is something very powerful.

    Even if sharing isn’t your thing, having the ability to store annotations on the web means they’re permanent. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve lost, or how badly I scribbled notes in the margin — leaving them useless. At least storing them on the web means you’ll never lose them again.

  2. I didn’t write in my p-books and I don’t annotate in my e-books. When a phrase or sentence catches my eye, I will write it on an index card along with book title, author, page # etc. and then add it to a notebook I keep.

    I like having all my notes in one place. It is surprising sometimes to find a phrase that resonated with me and realize I have no recollection of ever reading that book. I often find myself picking up a forgotten book just because of a notecard I wrote years ago. If I just made notes in my books, I’d miss out on that.

    As far as sharing goes, I’ll recommend a book I’ve really liked; (right now I’m recommending SKELETONS AT THE FEAST by Chris Bohjalian), but I don’t think of reading as a social experience and I don’t have any interest in knowing what someone else has found noteworthy.

  3. My best friend lives 500 miles away. I would love to be able to read a book and share annotations with him. I’d also be interested in sharing annotations among my circle of friends within a given online social network (FaceBook, G+, Goodreads, take your pick).

  4. January,
    Absolutely see your point. Although I think people have a misconception of what “social” reading really is. It’s not the same kind of social you see elsewhere on the web.

    It’s more about clearly separating the reading and sharing experiences, and once they are, I feel there is a clear benefit in observing what other’s are reading. But it also depends on how you like to be recommended a book. If it’s usually via friends, this kind of concept is incredibly powerful.

  5. I constantly annotate printed books, then later type up my annotations, organize and rewrite them, and incorporate many into handouts for students in my many courses. I do not at this point have an e-reader, and have been hesitant to get one. What I want to be able to easily do is:
    a) write the equivalent of at least 10-20 pages of annotations for a book (I type 120 words a minute, at least as fast as I talk, and wouldn’t want to be slowed down using an e-reader)
    b) save those annotations
    c) copy them into Word and print them

    Does anyone know if there’s an e-reader or e-reader software that would meet my needs? I keep researching them on the Internet, and have yet to find any reviews that lead me to think a particular e-reader will be adequate in the ways I mentioned above.

    I also really like the idea of being able to post annotations which my students can read, but that’s not as essential.


  6. Well, I’m… personally not really interested in the share-your-(raw)-notes-with-others-approach….. Though it’s not completely uninteresting (like: loading the annonation set of someone else into/onto a scientific article).

    But I’m doing notes and excerpts for most of the books I read (including, of course, fiction) – and have to agree with the original Jacobs article.

    I guess I work much like the last poster. But I’m rahter making notes on paper slips than writing directly into books, though that happens – and okay, I tend to to scribble a lot on scientific paper printouts.
    If, in a printed book, I discover a nice quote, or scene / thought / etc. – “Hm, maybe that could be incorporated into an essay or sth. …” – I make notes like:

    P. 134 – “”
    P. 327 – (plot): Protag. discovers, that he has been cheated
    p. 329 – (motive): the dead continue to make claims
    p. 386 – parallel to passage in -> Agamben …
    p. 432 – Nice metaphor: …

    …those leaflets then either stay in the book or they’re put into a folder. Before that, I often try to digitalize them and type notes and important text passages into text files.

    Obviously, this COULD – theoretically – be a lot easier with e-readers. But is it, right now?
    Here some thoughts on things that have to be adressed in order to be able to actually WORK with eBooks.

    …in typical eBook-Formats are a real problem when working with quotes etc. (Finding quotes again is of course SO much easier with digital formats. It’s also super-easy to scan a book for buzzwords. Text-search is THE huge plus with digital.)
    But how to actually quote, then?! Well, longer writings with no page numbers are nothing new, think of papyrus scrolls. One then would have to use other quotation-techniques. Special quotation styles exist for some “classics”: Think of the bible or many antique texts (that often required lots of philological work and standartization, though).
    But how to quote from a – theoretically – hundreds of pages long textfile with no fixed line width? Besides the chapters and headings, you can think of using paragraph and word numbers, of course… But I don’t see a standard there, or a method to easily work with.

    …possible with some devices; easier and also in multiple colours with LCD-based technology. But backlit screens, in the worst case combined with reflecting screens, provide a much worse reading experience when reading longer texts.
    In the eInk world, right now there’s the Icarus eXceL (couldn’t test this one yet) and the upcoming Sony 13″-thing that seem to suited for some serious in-text-annonating. Monochromatic, of course (personally no coulered-marker-fan, anyway). But slow reaction times / refreshing issues still seem to pose a big problem.

    Let’s assume that you want your annonations as digital text, linked to a passage, not just as a drawing (though you possibly also want some sketches) – in order to be able to search your notes, too. That seems possible with many eReaders, though there’s LOTS of room for improvement software-wise.
    On the hardware side, entering (longer) text on-screen is a pain in the ass with both tablets and eReaders.
    (BTW I don’t know much about the current state of handwriting recogniton and the practical usability; esp. in context with eBooks…)
    The possibility to search and LINK notes directly on the reading device, to easily delete them or to just HIDE them would be real plusses compared to handwritten annotations! But as stated, I think there’s lots of room for both software and hardware improvement.

    I see many benefits of digital texts compared to “analog” ones: The main one being to search the original text and possibily the reader’s annotations.
    However, if you’re really into WORKING with texts, I see some big (possible) downsides.
    There are many texts and books which can – maybe but not necesserily after taking some notes and quotes – theoretically or literally be thrown away after you used=read them. You don’t feel like ever taking another look at them.
    But there are others that you want to keep and work again with, say “classics” of your discipline or field of interest (scientific, philosophic or whatever; and great lyrics or prose, see that Ulysses picture above).
    You might want to take a look at your personal, annonated book again years later. That’s why the bibliophile can never have enough bookshelves. 🙂
    Well, standard hardcover books or handwritings on decent paper have a remarkably high life expectancy (if temperature and humidity stay within a certain range) – compared to digital storage devices and electronic gadgets like eReaders.. Although digital data can be copied easily and without any (quality) loss, long-term data storage is quite difficult and costly. I wonder how many digital family photo albums will get lost within the next years… Cloud storage seems to make professional data storage available for the average consumer, though. But he has to care for backup. And uncertainties remain (Dropbox in 2060?). Although one says that the internet never forgets, I think digital dementia is still a big issue.
    (In the longer perspective: Analyzing the library, notes and annotations of 18th century authors – still a business for philologists. The Laptop of an author of our time won’t tell anything in some years.)
    But let’s get back to the medium-time perspective. I guess right now it’s not that easy to keep annonations for an eBook you read and commented for even a few years. Next-gen device, platform change…?
    Can eReader annotations be easily archieved, transferred and synced cross-plattform? For the moment, I doubt it.

    So, just some thoughts. Woah, my comment got quite long now… Let’s stop here.


The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail newteleread@gmail.com.