If you find, as I do, the act of physically marking books indescribably (in the literal sense) disrespectful (to the physical book), you probably felt great the first time you realised that PDFs could be digitally annotated. Equally so when Amazon’s Kindle brought eBooks into the mainstream.

Unfortunately the story of highlights on Kindle has been one of some frustration and disappointment for me, in large part due to the restrictions placed on liberating highlights from the Amazon ecosystem, and the UX of highlighting on an e-ink Kindle, which remains to this today clunky, slow and always just a little too imprecise.

At some point Amazon introduced “popular annotations”, and it got me thinking about how we highlight fiction. The majority of the popular annotations that I see when reading fiction can essentially be boiled down to witty one-liners, or characters paraphrasing a heuristic, social or political view from our world.

I personally don’t find these kinds of highlights useful for fiction, especially for fiction series that span multiple books. In fact, and especially when reading a series that spans multiple books (that may well not have all been written yet), I always find myself wishing for a synopsis that captures all the main world-building beats I have encountered so far but may just need a little refresher on.

If you’ve ever tried reacquainting yourself with a fictional world before starting the next entry in a series you’ll know how much it sucks it accidentally read a spoiler on a fan wiki.

I recently started reading the Terra Ignota series by Ada Palmer, and with this series I am trying a new approach; using my Kindle highlights to create a feed of key, spoiler-free, world-building and story beats.

Interestingly, I have found myself referring back to these highlights often as I am reading, as primary source material to reference while my mind works overtime, sucked into this exquisitely crafted universe, racing to piece together the hidden mysteries sprinkled throughout the texts with the highlighted clues that only start to show their importance as more players, alliances and motivations are revealed.

The entire end-to-end process is fairly simple:

  • I read a few chapters on my e-ink Kindle and make mental notes of what I think are important passages that help in understanding the world of the novel and the motivations of its characters
  • A little later (after a break doing something else) I’ll switch to the Kindle application on my laptop, go through those chapters I read earlier and highlight the passages that I was thinking about — the highlighting experience on a laptop vs on a Kindle is really incomparable; trying to highlight on a Kindle is such a frustrating experience that it takes me out of my mental “reading zone”
  • I import the latest highlights to my Notado account, and they get automatically added to a novel or series-specific feed, which I subscribe to via RSS on my phone to have a quick reference at hand while I’m reading

That’s pretty much it. If you struggle thinking of what to highlight or how to make meaningful highlights when reading fiction, I encourage you to give this approach a try and share your experiences with me.

If you want a real-world example of what this approach looks like, you can check out my Terra Ignota highlights feed (spoiler-free).