Commonplacing the public domain: reading the classics socially on the Kindle



Rowberry S (2016) Commonplacing the public domain: reading the classics socially on the Kindle. Language and Literature, 25 (3), pp. 211-225.

Amazon leads the market in ebooks with the Kindle brand, which encompasses a range of dedicated e-reader devices and a large ebook store. Kindle users are able to share the experience of reading ebooks purchased from Amazon by selecting passages of text for upload to the Kindle Popular Highlights website. In this article, I propose that the Kindle Popular Highlights database contains evidence that readers are re-appropriating commonplacing – the act of selecting important passages from a text and recording them in a separate location for later re-use – while reading public domain titles on the Kindle. An analysis of keyness in a corpus of 34,044 shared highlights from public domain titles suggests that readers focus on words relating to philosophy and values to draw an understanding of contemporary society from these classic works. This form of highlighting takes precedent over understanding and sharing key narrative moments. An examination of the top ten most popular authors in the corpus, and case studies of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, demonstrates variation in highlighting practice as readers are choosing to shorten famous commonplaces in order to change their context for an audience that extends beyond the original reader. Through this analysis, I propose that Kindle users’ highlighting patterns are shaped by the behaviour of other readers and reflect a shared understanding of an audience beyond the initial highlighter.

Keywords; Commonplace book; Digital reading; Ebooks; Highlighting; History of reading; Kindle; Kindle Public Highlights; Public domain books; Social reading

Language and Literature: Volume 25, Issue 3

Publication date31/08/2016
Date accepted by journal09/05/2016

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Dr Simon Rowberry

Dr Simon Rowberry

Lecturer, Communications, Media and Culture