Democratizing Bartlett’s: What Kindle Readers Highlight

Bartlett's Familiar QuotationsI have gathered a posie of other men’s flowers, and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.

So said American publisher John Bartlett of his most famous work, a compendium of quotations that is still in print today. While later editors went far beyond the founder’s favorite sources (the Bible and Shakespeare) to sample memorable expressions from a language that found expression in everything from rock’n’roll to the Watergate tapes, it’s always seemed a bit odd that so few people had so much power to determine which men’s (and women’s) flowers should be gathered into the “posie.” Why should any one person (or even any one group of editors) hold “the thread that binds them.”

It’s downright un-American, I tells ya!

Fortunately, we have a more democratic way out, courtesy of the folks at Amazon.

Amazon Kindle
Licensed by Creative Commons (arianravan)

As many of you probably know, Amazon’s Kindle device lets users highlight portions of an e-book that they find especially noteworthy. (The e-quivalent of underlining, or — as I tend to do — marking an asterisk next to a paragraph.) But Amazon also records these highlights and compiles them, so that when you’re looking for a book in the Kindle Store, you can check to see which words, sentences, or paragraphs have grabbed the attention of the highest number of readers.

For example, in the Lauren Winner book about a “mid-faith crisis” that I’m currently blogging through, the most commonly highlighted passage at the moment (selected by fifty users) is “…God is here through our longing for God; God gives us many gifts, but God is He Who gives God.” (Quoting St. Augustine of Hippo in this book, also on Kindle)

So it occurred to me that this feature of the Kindle might suggest a kind of open-source version of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations for the 21st century. As a taste, here are some of the most commonly highlighted passages in the bestselling books in several categories at the Kindle Store: (please understand that I neither named these categories nor determined which books fit which categories nor deemed which books would be the most popular…)


Oliver Pötzsch, The Hangman’s Daughter(trans. Lee Chadeayne)

“…if you want to know who is responsible for anything, ask who benefits from it.”

“When he dipped into the mysteries of nature, he was sure that there must be a God. Who else could create such lovely works of art?”

Children’s Fiction

Suzanne Collins, Mockingjay

“It takes ten times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart.”

“We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction.”

Fiction Classics

Jane Austen, Jane Austen: The Complete Collection

“Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” (This one, at least, actually is in Bartlett’s.)

Science Fiction

Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

“New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.”

“Anyone unable to understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.”


Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Complete, Illustrated (trans. H.F. Cary)

“In the midway of this our mortal life, / I found me in a gloomy wood, astray…”

“No greater grief than to remember days / Of joy, when mis’ry is at hand…”

A Shakespeare collection is actually #1 here, but the most popular passage (from Hamlet) had only been highlighted five times… (“What a piece of work is a man…”)


John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (NIV; also most popular in the best-selling Kindle versions of the King James and NRSV)

Philippians 4:6-7 – “…do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (ESV; also most popular in NASB)

Matthew 5:3 – “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.” (The Message)


Cheryl Strayed, Wild (From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail)

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.” (Can you believe this was in Oprah’s book club?!? Not surprisingly, this passage was one identified by Oprah as one of her favorites. “I just love that line for all the obvious reasons,” commented Oprah. “So much of who we are is born of the story we tell ourselves. Cheryl’s courage is born of a different story. That’s what was so exciting to me. Most people are stuck in the same story they’ve been telling themselves since they were ten years old.”)


Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

“Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty.”

Business and Science

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs

“‘Pretend to be completely in control and people will assume that you are.’”

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

Current Events

Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity

“In the West, and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India’s modern, global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.”


Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

“An honest man is one who knows that he can’t consume more than he has produced.”

“Francisco, what’s the most depraved type of human being?” “The man without a purpose.”


C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

“These, then, are the two points I wanted to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Secondly, that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.”


Tina Fey, Bossypants

“So my unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this. When faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this person in between me and what I want to do?’ If the answer is no, ignore it and move on. Your energy is better used doing your work and outpacing people that way. Then, when you’re in charge, don’t hire the people who were jerky to you.”

“It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don’t like something, it is empirically not good. I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist.”

One thought on “Democratizing Bartlett’s: What Kindle Readers Highlight

  1. Hi Chris,

    Great article you have here. Before the advent of Kindle, or any electronic book reader for that matter, I too have underlined a passage or two from books that I have read. It’s a helpful way to remember and go back to sections that you favored.

    Amazon has done a good job in making it possible for Kindle readers to highlight their favorite passages. It can be inconvenient however at times to access them. There is a new iOS app that will be released come November 2013 which will change how Kindle users share and access their highlights and notes all under one place. This app is Snippefy and you can check it out at

    I thought I might share this with you as it might interest you and your readers.

    Thank you.


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