There are lots of things I love about ebooks, including their portability and their searchability. But one of the things I love most about them is their highlightability.

I’ve never had any desire to mark up paper books. I’m one of those people with a deeply rooted sense that books should be kept inviolate; I don’t fold back covers, I don’t fold down corners, and I would never dream of underlining or highlighting something in a paper book.

But in an ebook, every time a word or phrase catches my eye, I can quickly and easily and nonpermanently mark it. It doesn’t feel to me like damaging or altering the book; just adding a layer of metadata that could easily be stripped away should I be so inclined.

(Writing in a paper book in pencil seems like it ought to feel similar, but even pencil marks feel more permanent to me on paper. They presumably could be erased completely, but it’s not trivially easy to erase them.)

So as I read an ebook, I liberally highlight things. Phrases that I like; words that are unfamiliar to me; phrases that I dislike; typos and other errors (in a different highlighting style, for ease of finding and reporting to the publisher); things that I think might be foreshadowing; things that I think are references to other works; anything at all that I feel is noteworthy in some way. Sometimes that means half the sentences on a page are highlighted.

Most of my highlights are things that I don’t feel strongly about; I figure if I come back and look at the highlighted bit later and don’t remember why I highlighted it, I’ll just delete the highlight. But in cases where there’s something in particular I want to say about a highlighted bit, I’ll also add a note. Which is another great thing about ebooks; I can write notes without permanently altering the book, and then I can search those notes later, or copy and paste them into other contexts.

Anyway, really my main point in writing this post is that I think it’s interesting that I feel so strongly negatively about highlighting or underlining in paper books, but that I feel so casual about doing so in ebooks. Fairly often these days, when I start to read a paper book and I’m pretty sure I’ll want to keep it (as opposed to the books that I read a bit of and then give away), I end up buying an ebook version specifically so that I can mark it up. (And to make it portable and searchable.) I even sometimes get the impulse to highlight while I’m reading paper books—but it’s never the impulse to make real marks on the paper; it’s still always the impulse to get an electronic version so I can nonpermanently mark that up.

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