Deborah Yaffe


Highlighting the highlighted

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 12 2014 02:45PM

More fun with data! A bright young reporter decided to mine the little-known trove of info that is Amazon’s list of the passages most often highlighted in Kindle books.

Headline news is that reading Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy apparently stokes an irrepressible desire to highlight: nineteen of the top twenty-five passages, and thirty of the top one hundred, come from one of those books.

But Janeite news is that Pride and Prejudice holds its own, netting two of the top ten slots and five of the top one hundred. It’s twenty-third on the Most Highlighted Books list, and only six other books have more passages represented in the Top 100.*

And what are those five oft-underlined passages from P&P? Prepare to be a little bit surprised.

#2: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” (highlighted by 9,260 readers)

OK, you knew that one would be up there. It’s among the most famous opening lines in all of literature. (One of the others–“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina--comes in at #84, and “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” from Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, misses the top one hundred by a whisker.)

#7: “Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” (8,437)

Huh. I suspect a homework motive in the frequent highlighting of this characteristically pompous and abstract statement by Mary Bennet. I envision eight thousand high school students, anticipating an essay question on the significance of "pride" and "prejudice" in Jane Austen’s novel of that name, flailing about for some idea of what she means by those concepts.

#42: “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.” (4,130)

It’s a great passage, I’ll grant you, but I do hope that none of the highlighting readers is taking Charlotte Lucas’ cold-blooded before-the-fact justification for her marriage to the repellant Mr. Collins (no relation to Suzanne) as a definitive statement of Jane Austen’s views on the subject. Or--even worse!--planning to put these principles into practice in her own marriage choice.

#54: "In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.” (3,868)

Oh, fine. I know we all love to imagine Colin Firth saying it to us, but perhaps we should remember that this is Darcy’s lead-in to the insulting first proposal, the one Elizabeth furiously rejects. Not really that romantic, folks!

#73: “There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense.” (3,450)

Again–hmm. Here’s Elizabeth Bennet at a low moment: bitterly disappointed in Charlotte, hurting over Bingley’s apparent desertion of Jane, and furious at what she believes to be Darcy’s mistreatment of that delightful George Wickham. Either our highlighters are mistaking her acerbic sentiments for those of their author, or they're a mopey bunch who find Elizabeth to be a kindred spirit at this point in the story.

All but the first of these highlighted passages, you will notice, are lines of dialogue spoken by one or another of Austen’s characters. And if my suspicions of the highlighting readers’ intentions are accurate, the choices may indicate a common error among quoters of Austen: the tendency to mistake sentiments that she puts into the mouths of her characters for definitive statements of her own views.

Meanwhile, those busy electronic yellow pens are missing out on some of the greatest lines ever. My personal top five highlightable passages from P&P:

#5: "I should like balls infinitely better," she replied, "if they were carried on in a different manner; but there is something insufferably tedious in the usual process of such a meeting. It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day."

"Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball."

#4: “You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves."

"You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least."

#3: “Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connexions?”

#2: “There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient."

#1: "An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do."

* Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games etc., which I’m treating as a single work for these purposes (30 passages); Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (9); David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (8); Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (7); Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (6); Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (6).

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