Jonathan Franzen on the impermanence of ebooks

Franzen's 'The Corrections'

Jonathan Franzen has caused a stir by critiquing ebooks in what appears on the surface to be an outmoded and backward-looking account of their usefulness. I liked his The Corrections a great deal and Freedom, too, so I thought I’d not just quietly dismiss his comments and probe a little deeper.

I think the gist of what he’s saying is based upon the notion of impermeability of printed books, their ability to remain steady when all about is changing:

When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring.

He has probably been impressed by the fact that books can be changed, or even erased, in that infamous case of Amazon. I think, perhaps in time of technology torment (when we can’t get our broadband to work or the update screen keeps appears over our presentation) that we wish for something substantial, something we can hold on to and understand immediately. Franzen then turns to the ways in which he sees printed books as a gesture to certainty:

Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.

When a popular book is published at the moment there is a both a printed book and an ebook version. In both cases, the author has paid equal attention and care to the words he or she has used – the texts are identical. But Franzen perhaps reveals his latent prejudices here: he suggests that if you’re a writer solely of ebooks (and perhaps self-published, selling large volume at low prices) then you don’t pay enough care and attention to your work. In creative terms, Franzen is creating a pernicious hierarchy where paper is at the top and ebooks somewhere below.

That said, Franzen does raise some significance points about scholarship, perhaps inadvertently. Say, for example, a scholar now or in the near future is interested in a writer whose development of an idea is outlined in a series of blog posts. Technically, we can capture that blog at any one given time and archive it. But I’m not sure this will be done and it’s possible that the source of their ideas will be lost. We know, for example, that Shakespeare read The Bishop’s Bible and how, therefore, he might be directly influence by its particular approach – its language, themes, interpretation and so on. Can we say the same for writers who use more transitory formats for their sources and development (given they are more transitory)? The likelihood is that we’ll develop new ways of creating books, electronic or printed, some more transitory than others, but that will result in a text that is subject to change – something that we’ll get used to and no doubt welcome.

Franzen extends his idea about the necessity for permanence for literature by contemplating a more transitory culture. He asks:

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.

Moving sideways, there remain reasons to still like the printed book. We cannot forget the aesthetic pleasure of handling a physical object like a book well-made. Or seeing – and smelling – shelves of them when we enter an ancient bookstore. The two are different pleasures, almost opposite ends of the continuum: we enjoy the splendour of a weighty, new, uncreased volume as well as the the dirt and (moderate) annotations of the book’s previous owner. Franzen doesn’t address all of the ebook’s contributions to literature and why should he – this has been done elsewhere, and rightly, too.

It remains instead that the ebook’s  (to use a horrible term but one which perfectly captures the stark cost-benefit analysis of this pressing issue) affordances so outweigh its shortcomings that only the most dolefully nostalgic reader will not forever leave the Kindle on the shelf.

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