A thoughtful reader just forwarded me a link to a fairly fascinating mini-essay by Alan Jacobs; it was posted in the technology department of the The Atlantic‘s website a little earlier today. (Thanks Stephen!)

Jacobs’ essay presumes to be something of a progress report insofar as e-reading technology is concerned. But from where I stand, the story’s truly fascinating angle comes from the fact that Jacobs is very much interested in an e-reading technology that appears to have been all but forgotten over the past few years: The ability to annotate.

“It seems to me,” Jacobs writes, “that the most serious deficiencies of e-readers involve readers’ interactions with books.”

Here’s Jacobs again, ranting about the near impossibility of having a meaningful interaction with an e-reading device:

” … newer versions of the Kindle software are making it harder to annotate: the various versions of the Kindle Touch lack a physical keyboard, and invoking and using the virtual one is very slow and profoundly awkward. Moreover, the software for the newer Kindles makes it harder even to highlight: the older software, which is still being used for the Kindle Keyboard assumes that when you click on a word you want to start highlighting, whereas the Touch software assumes that you want to get a definition of the word. (Is that really more likely?)”

It may be a minority point of view, but it’s interesting nonetheless. Check out the essay in its entirety here.

And while you’re at it, please leave us a note in the comments section if you’re the type of reader who actually sympathizes with Jacobs’ plight. This is what I’d like to know: Is the desire to annotate on an e-reader perhaps more widespread than any of us previously assumed?


  1. I’ve heard from a number of academics that poor annotation capabilities in ereaders is why they want paper books or printouts of journal articles for serious research, even when they prefer ebooks for their pleasure reading (or even prefer ebooks and ejournals for initial reading about a research topic).

  2. Screen navigation is different from print navigation and ebook annotation different from print annotation. To begin with the screen reader will not use markers. But the basic need to annotate is to link the annotations to a personal reading agenda. As the annotations are distributed the reader will replay those threshold actions and needs to correlate their locations and motivations across the stream of content. Here the method of the reaction counts. Manuscript annotation is very rich, pliant and direct while screen must be transacted as software prompts. The screen negotiation creates annotations subsumed by text and disguises motivations.

  3. I have to admit as a fiction reader, the ability to annotate is of no use to me whatsoever. As an author I do like to be able to put my own books on my Kindle for one of the proofreading passes and leave notes where I find errors. A friend who reviews books tell me she really likes the way she can make notes on her Kindle (I believe she was a Kindle Keyboard, which is what I have).

  4. So eReaders are not all things to all men, all of them time. What does that actually say ?
    Well it does not say that eReaders are flawed – for a start. It just means that they, like any other device or medium in the history of mankind, cannot do everything !

    Personally I have seen regular discussion of this topic on Teleread and elsewhere in the last year and it is always an insider discussion among academics who bemoan that eReaders don’t do what THEY want .. and use it as an excuse to slate the whole digital transformation of publishing.

    I agree with Ellen above. I am a reader. I neither need nor want to annotate a fiction story – nor a non fiction title either. I want to read what it says, lose myself in it and learn from non fiction. I don’t want to ‘interact’ with it.

    Jacobs clearly has a specific, specialist interest. eReaders don’t satisfy that interest. He needs to find another path, not demand that eReaders be changed or redesigned.

  5. I don’t annotate, but I do highlight, a lot. Either I mark a typo or OCR error to correct it later, or I highlight a quote or passage I like, so I can copy it to my clippings book. I would greatly miss the ability to highlight if it got taken away.

  6. I think the ability to annotate ebooks is important to more readers than you might think. Certainly many academics but also those of who read non fiction about something we are trying to learn.

  7. Annotations are essential. I resent that I have to convert docs to PDF and open in SKIM to get what I need. I will use bootleg software to convert a Kindle book to PDF so that I can get a better idea of what the original page numbers are.

    Someone needs to tell publishers that annotations are essential; some of them don’t allow it on Kindles. I need the exact quote with a page cite for work I do. SKIM works, Adobe Acrobat is useless. Printing them off and having them available is necessary if I am hiring someone to do my bibliography. The unfortunate thing with Kindle is I get locations, not actual page numbers, which is aggravating. It’s an extra cost to hire someone to find those page numbers for me.

    eBook publishers need to get a lot smarter about this and stop worrying about piracy.

  8. I own a Sony Reader (PRS T1) and frequently read pdf documents on it (the reflow function works really good on most content). Those are mostly to learn so annotations or highlighting are a neccessary. But I have to say that works okay on my reader: I can highlight with a longer touch and then dragging the start and end point to where I need them and with two other “clicks” I am able to add comments, either on the keyboard (which works on an eInk device, just don’t wait until one character shows up before you continue typing!) or by using the pen.

    I don’t think annotations are such a rare use case, everybody who might want to cite something or wants to learn from a text can profit form such features. But at least in my case, the reader allows me to do what I want to. Can’t comment on a Kindle though.

  9. Thanks so much for all the comments, everyone. I’ll admit that I never gave much thought to the notion that academics, for instance, might actually have a professional need to annotate. What’s more, if the colleagues those professionals work with on a regular basis are using e-readers to share content or notes among themselves, I can certainly see how the necessary extra steps would get pretty old, pretty fast.

    Incidentally, I’d love to hear from any of you annotators out there who use e-readers in your professional lives, and have been frustrated by your gadget’s inability to do what you need it to. I’d especially like to hear more from MRW: What sort of work do you do, exactly, and why is that work carried out on an e-reader?

    But with all that being said, Howard does make a very valid point: E-readers will probably never be all things to all people, nor should anyone expect them to be. Still, for consumers or professionals who use them on a near-daily basis, I’d say it’s both interesting and potentially valuable to continue learning about what’s working well with certain devices, and what isn’t.

  10. Scott, it’s a matter of the software app in use. The Kindle is the most common platform these days, and as others have noted, there’s room for improvement. So this is a rather legitimate issue. I will say that I am very pleased that the current iBooks application allows people to email their notes.

    Why not list the application or applications you yourself favor because of their annotation capabilities? Which are the most powerful in this area, and what do you consider the trade-offs? Remember the best annotation-optimized applications may not be the best general applications.


  11. The possibilities for annotations — not just personal, in-my-book for my eyes only annotations, but shared annotations — are, I submit one of the most exciting things about eBooks.
    Here is a short list of how shared annotation functionality might work:
    Collaborative study: classes can share notes
    Professor curated editions: A teacher might highlight, comment and even correct a text in use.
    Collaborative adaptation: two screenwriters marking up a text they are adapting
    Seeing notes from the smartest kid in the class
    Author’s Cuts: Author’s annotating their own books.
    Travel Books: travelers update the books, creating crowd-sourced editions with corrections, updates and suggestions.
    Cook Books: Readers can add their own recipes. Make suggestions. Like all these ideas, the book then becomes a living, breathing, growing thing.

  12. For Android users Mantano handles notes/annotations quite well. Multi colored highlighting, both typed and hand written notes, etc. I don’t do any annotating, but it seems to be pretty complete to me.

  13. I don’t think that Alan goes far enough. He’s concerned with making notes to himself that are confined to a single book, an activity analogous to what can be done with paper books. There’s value in that for some but what if my “notes to self” could be collected in a database-like application that enabled me to compare and contrast my reactions to any number of books? Why not anything I read digitally? That’s still not enough so let’s raise the ante by enabling readers to share all or some of their marginalia with other people and even with computer systems that respond in ways that people cannot? Might this not make a book club more fun? Would it enrich an academic event such as a class, seminar or lecture?
    With digital, there is a vast reservoir to be drawn upon so that we can not only do things that we did before but, more importantly, do things that were not possible before.

  14. I have to say I only began e-reading after graduation, but remembering those days researching I can completely emphasise with the author. The virtual keyboard on the Kindle IS useless, I think I would definitely have to have Kindle in one hand and pen and paper in the other – hardly the digital future hey?

    I think this is something that needs to be addressed – by Kindle, not by publishers (surely it is the device itself that lacks functionality not the content?). My subject was literature, and many of the books I studied are available free on the Kindle. It would have then been frustrating to discover I couldn’t utilise them fully for research. And yes, do markers accept Kindle Locations in references?

  15. I am not convinced that Amazon is making it harder to highlight. On the K3 keyboard, before you can “click” on anything, you have to move the cursor to where you want to “click” and this action automatically brings up the dictionary definition of the word. So the dictionary always had priority over highlighting – your first act brings up the definition and your next act starts a highlight.

    I imagine the Touch is pretty equivalent, with the first act (touching a word, I would guess) bringing up the definition and a subsequent action being required to start a highlight.

    In fact, I would guess I would find highlighting more intuitive on a Touch, since I always forget what action begins a highlight on my K3, so I spend too much time pressing various buttons or diving into menus.

    My personal belief is that this interface is appropriate as most people I know don’t annotate or highlight, they just read for enjoyment. They do, however, sometimes encounter words they aren’t very familiar with.

    I only use highlights and notes when I am participating in a bookclub and I run across something specific I want to discuss while reading. But I like to look up words, even words I can figure out from the context, to get a precise definition of the word.

  16. Most of my reading is fiction, but I do enjoy non-fiction as well. I’ve never been one to write in my books, I kept small notepad and pen handy and then tucked the notes in the book, or kept the notepad with the book. Once I discovered highlighting (or clipping) on my Kindle, I was fascinated. I do quotes, interesting words (haven’t read a ‘Nero Wolfe’ that didn’t have at least 1 good word in it), and in non-fiction I like to highlight passages. I’m annoyed when the publisher limits me to one or two short clips — sometimes only a few words. What’s their prob? If I had the printed book, I’d just stop at the copy machine and photocopy long passages for myself? Anyhow, I do like the ability to highlight and if they take that away I’d be unhappy.

  17. Seth Kaufman: Many thanks for that list. I spent quite a few years writing travel guidebooks for Lonely Planet and Avalon Travel’s Moon Handbooks, and if I’m not mistaken, LP has tentative plans in place to create the sort of crowd-sourced e-guidebook you mentioned in your comment. In fact, they may already be doing something along these lines; I’m really not sure. I’ll look into it and report back.

  18. I think annotating parts of a book is a very special experience. It means something between the pages is important to me; important enough for me to keep hold of it. At the end of a book I have a trail of highlights and comments that express I how I felt about it.

    I work for Readmill (readmill.com) – a Berlin based startup – and we’ve created a digital reading experience around highlighting passages in your favourite books. What we’re also doing, aside from the way we annotate physical books, is using the power of the web to take the concept to the next logical step – to share what you highlight. As Seth Kaufman says above, sharing is an exciting thing. Instead of your friends and family seeing a book as merely a cover and summary, they now get a very personal insight between the pages – highlights, comments, likes, discussions. By highlighting with Readmill, you can effectively bring a library and book club to your couch.

    All of this comes from our belief in preserving the concept of annotating when we read digitally. We’ve really tried hard to make it as natural as possible, as I can see there is some frustration about its implementation on devices other than the iPad. Will annotating be as easy and relevant for digital reading in the future? We sure think so. It’s just the beginning.

  19. While I do not often makes notes in a book, I do use highlighting which has become LOTS easier on the Kindle Touch which also provides mult-page highlighting, i.e. a highlight that runs from one page into another. It is very easy and fast on the Touch. The most attractive highlights are on the iPad’s Kindle app but it is sometimes difficult to get a highlight started on the iPad app.

  20. As an indexer, highlighting is part of my job. The first thing I did when I got a new 10″ Android tablet was to buy and review all the available PDF highlighting programs. ezPDF reader pro comes out on top, although it has lots of flaws and the settings need extensive tweaking. And I suspect a resistive screen would be better than a capacitive, although I haven’t verified this on a ten inch tablet. But as one commentator has already said, we will inevitably end up with a range of different devices for different requirements. With the current price of tablets, one that saves me fifteen minutes every hour can pay for itself in a couple of days.

  21. “Scott says:
    July 31, 2012 at 4:12 am
    The iPad does a wonderful job of annotation. Long notes, different colored markers, etc. The writer doesn’t know what he is talking about.”

    That only works on books in iBooks. It doesn’t work with PDF files in iBooks.

  22. One other place where annotation would be helpful: proofreading an ebook. It’s not as much of an issue for an individual ebook creator who can have their epub open in one window and the raw file open in another, but for a publisher who wants to send their ebooks out to a freelance proofreader, a robust, exportable annotation system would make it much easier to get the corrections *back* in electronic format.

  23. I completely, 100%, sympathize. Also: I apologize in advance for not reading additional comments. I’m pressed for time, but I wanted to share:

    I work for a basic science institute and have had this concern on my mind for a few years, really since the iPad made the scene. Everything’s still geared toward consumption and not creation. That’s starting to change, but not fast enough.

    It’s not so much a tech problem, either. The tech is there (though we’re still waiting for ~50ms response, which I think is the [very rough] low-end requirement for usefulness.

    I’ve talked with a number of techie friends. Everyone agrees that you can hack together solutions (I use Diigo.com compulsively), but there’s no tablet that strives to make Research their tech-focus.

    I believe the company that figures that out will have dumptrucks of money delivered to their front door, but what do I know. 🙂

  24. I have had almost every model Kindle, and I find using the annotations feature easier to do on the Paperwhite than it was on the Kindle Keyboard. I love the way I can get to my notes and highlights via the web; it makes writing book reviews much easier. I do wish Amazon made it easier to retrieve the notes and highlights I make in “personal documents” (Amazon calls anything on my Kindle that I didn’t buy from them a personal document, whether it’s a shopping list, a manuscript, or a Project Gutenberg classic). The personal document highlights and annotations don’t go to the web at all and getting the file they’re in is cumbersome.

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