Attack of the 50-Foot eBook

Jonathan Franzen: e-books are damaging society

Jonathan Franzen has launched a passionate defence of the printed book, warning that our desire for the instant gratification of e-books is damaging for society.

I certainly do not revere Jonathan Franzen. I see his writing as eclipsed by others such as Robert Coover, Carole Maso, Joseph Elroy, Ricki Ducornet, or even the very problematical Don DeLillo. The thought of considering him one of the greatest living American authors sends major chortles down into my belly to join this morning’s breakfast burrito. Is he better than Stephen King? I should hope so: Franzen is not all bad, just overrated by both his public and himself. But the article goes on:

The author of Freedom and The Corrections, regarded as one of America’s greatest living novelists, said consumers had been conned into thinking that they need the latest technology.

“The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model,” said Franzen, who famously cuts off all connection to the internet when he is writing.

“I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change.

“Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball.

“But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”

Franzen was speaking at the Hay Festival in England. You can read the remainder of the piece by Anita Singh at The Telegraph. I actually like his argument; it is similar to one of my earlier concerns when the Kindle first came out. But even though I prefer real books, I do see the advantage of preserving reading materials that might be lost to space restrictions. Do you know how much room it takes to store the complete run of the New York Times? It’s almost as much room as it takes to store William T. Vollmann’s published works. Now you can get facsimiles online or even on a DVD that you pop into your computer. Today I receive “The Nation” and a couple of other periodicals in digital format. Unlike the paper copies that used to stack up until I threw them away (read or unread, the weekly news gets stale fast), I can keep years of The Nation in a computer file that takes up little room and removes all clutter.

I suppose that is the flaw in Franzen’s argument:  great works will always be in print but not everything. Being one of “America’s greatest authors,” I’m sure Franzen considers his books safe for eternity, but does he ignore all the lesser writing that might not make the cut and end up in the garbage dumps for future archeologists to discover?

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