Seeing how a book has been used, however — its dog-eared pages, notes in the margins, ragged underlines — gives you a sense of how readers read, but only on a microcosmic scale.
In the digital realm, pooling that data is much easier. When you highlight a sentence or three on your Kindle, Amazon collects that information. The company published lists of the most highlighted books and the most highlighted passages, the latter of which is totally dominated by Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy, with Jane Austen and a couple motivational manuals thrown in, too. The results are none too surprising to anyone who's spent hours in the psychic time-suck vortex of quotation websites.
That is, the vast majority say a whole lotta nothin'.
These passages are what I like to call obviisms — digestible little adages that reveal precisely zero heretofore unknown truths — such as this bit from Catching Fire: "Because sometimes things happen to people and they’re not equipped to deal with them."
That's literally the most-highlighted sentence in all of Kindledom, with over 17,000 readers basking beneath the glowing wisdom of a sentence that amounts to "shit happens."
Another, from Mockingjay: "It takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart." And, another: "We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction." Mind = blown?
I'm not saying The Hunger Games series are bad books. (Never read 'em myself, but the movies are competently made.) As Helen Rosner recently wrote in defense of young-adult fiction, "It’s okay not to have your worldview shattered, to sometimes, in fact, have your thoughts and ideas reinforced. It is entirely okay — and this is the case no matter what section of the bookstore something is shelved in, up to and including literary fiction — for a novel to be easy to read."
My issue is with the quotations themselves. They might look nice on some Photoshopped macro passed around on Pinterest, but they do a disservice to the very books they appear in by being reduced to banal, context-free platitudes.
Then there's the sheer numbers involved. The second most-highlighted Kindle passage is a famous one from Pride and Prejudice, but it's got barely half the number of highlights as the Catching Fire quote. That suggests a readership of people who are looking to have their worldview shattered, but without the messy business of stepping on broken glass.
At the risk of going meta, I have to quote here from A.A. Milne, the beloved author of Winnie the Pooh: "[A] quotation is a handy thing to have about, saving one the trouble of thinking for oneself, always a laborious business."
This criticism goes for the classics, too. Number 35 on the Amazon list is from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes: "Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent."
There is also this painfully ironic gem from Colton Burpo's Heaven Is for Real: "It is the opposite of ignorance — it is intellectual honesty: To be willing to accept reality and to call things what they are even when it is hard."
We can't forget to mention, from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey's awkward paraphrasing of neurologist Viktor Frankl: "Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose."
At least, rounding out the top 50, there is the endlessly quotable Oscar Wilde and his Picture of Dorian Grey: "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing."
Truer words were never spoken.