Jonathan Franzen Shakes His Fist at the Clouds, Especially the Virtual Ones

Question, which seems apt considering the previous post today:

Any thoughts on Jonathan Franzen’s opinions about eBooks?

For those of you who have not seen them, they are here. For those disinclined to link, here’s a quote:

Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. 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… 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.

On one hand I get what he’s saying, because I do love physical books. Today I got copies of the Spanish language version of Fuzzy Nation, and holding the physical printed object brings home the point that yes, someone bought the book, yes, someone printed it, and yes, people will read the thing (in another language, even!). A printed physical object ties  into my personal sense of accomplishment when it comes to books. It’s like, here it is. In the real world. Finally. I think the love of books as tactile objects is something that’s going to be around for a while, and not just because writers need to be assured there is a (presumably) permanent, unalterable record.

On the other hand I suspect Franzen overprivileges the permanence of the book as a physical object to a considerable degree, and if you want to know why I think that, try reading an original science fiction pulp paperback from the 70s or earlier. They were printed on crappy acidic paper that started turning yellow nearly the moment they got off the printing press, the glue on the spine crumbles, and the thing starts falling apart the second you look at it too hard. You can hold one of these books, but if you try to read it, you run a really good chance of destroying it in the process. Bibliophiles — the ones who love physical books at least — are aware that physical books are anything but permanent. There are lots of ways for them to go away.

Here’s another way of looking at it. I have a copy of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station on my shelf (it’s the gorgeous limited edition by Subterranean Press). I also have a digital copy of it on my Nook. Which is more permanent? One is a physical object, but that physical object could be lost or stolen, or destroyed if, say, my house burned down to the ground, taking my library with it. The digital object, on the other hand, is hard to lose because it can be in multiple places; I can read it on my computer, or my eReader, or my cell phone or my computer tablet; indeed, I can read it one one, set that down and fire it up on the other and have the book open to the very spot I stopped reading it before. If my house burns up, my digital copy of Perdido will still be there to comfort me. But if Barnes & Noble goes out of business — and it might — then I may be screwed, because there’s no guarantee the access to the book file will survive Barnes & Noble as a company (I have some useless DRMed audio files on my computer as testament of that).

There are other ways that both physical books and digital books can go away, but you get my point, I trust, which is that neither physical books nor digital books have any claim on permanence that can’t be immediately refuted in significant ways. The one unassailable advantage physical books have or digital books is that they don’t require an intermediary piece of hardware to access them — all you need is your eyeballs — and given the turnover in tech hardware, that’s not insignificant. But it doesn’t argue for permanence; it argues for a potentially longer window for information decay.

(Franzen’s also incorrect that physical copies somehow limit the alterations that can be made to texts after the fact; Compare early versions of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles with later versions and you’ll see what I mean. There’s an excellent chance people who have read the later versions are entirely unaware that the text has been significantly altered. Franzen’s also apparently charmingly naive about the number of copy errors that make it through the editorial process, despite everyone’s best efforts.)

Franzen’s dislike of eBooks appears essentially to be an appeal to the romanticism of physical books, which is nice and about which I can sympathize with him, although only up to a point. Ultimately, however, my more pragmatic side comes through, and it says “You want this book in [x] format? You’ll pay me money for it? Here you go.” Which is why my books are variously in hardcover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, eBook (in various formats) and audio (also in various formats), depending on their place in the production cycle and the agreements I have in place with publishers.

Outside of the desire to see my local indie bookstore stay in business, because they are awesome folks and it’s a great shop, and in a larger sense for bookstores to survive because of what I see as the long terms social benefits of having booksellers as part of the matrix of commerce, I’m agnostic regarding format. The words — my words — are the same across all the formats, and it’s those words that matter; the container, less so. I’d note Franzen’s work is out there for electronic consumption, so it seems at the end of the day he is pragmatic about this at well, at least on a contractual level.

118 thoughts on “Jonathan Franzen Shakes His Fist at the Clouds, Especially the Virtual Ones

  1. Until some of us (growing older) fogies pass on and the majority of reading is done in some electronic format, I think this debate will continue. I for one lean more towards Franzen’s end of the spectrum when it comes to love of books as physical objects. I don’t have any overt hatred toward e-books, more of a sadness for something special that is ever more rapidly passing away.

    As for your example of the old, poorly constructed classics, my first reads of books like Asimov’s I, Robot and Heinlein’s The Green Hills of Earth were done with books that fell apart as I read them. The sentimental part of me enjoyed the reading more because of the idea that these books were published so long ago and that someone, in this case me, was giving them one (potentially) last read before placing them back on the shelf.

  2. I wish I could remember the gist of the Samuel T. Cogley (Elisha Cook, Jr.) rant in “Court Martial” from the old Star Trek series…he was defending Jim Kirk with real, old fashioned print BOOKS.

    –Dave C.

  3. I have mixed feelings about the lifespan of paperbacks. On the one hand, I dislike having a book I like disintegrate, and there is always the fear that I may not be able to replace it… on the other hand, it gives me the opportunity to support the author by buying a fresh copy…

  4. I have a friend with diabetic retinopathy. Despite her love for physical books, she can no longer read them. An eReader allows her to adjust font and contrast to allow her to read, and if that doesn’t work, it will read to her.

  5. You are 100% right about the non-permanance of the text in a printed book. You pointed out one example in your original comment. Another example is the near George Lucas level of fiddling with the “Lord of the Rings”. The Text of that book has been updated and changed even past the death of its Author. “This the way the way dad meant it to be.” I wonder if Athena with be doing that to OMW someday?

  6. I do feel for the sentiment regarding permanence, at least when it comes to the tactile “realness.”

    My parents just got me a Kindle Touch, which is pretty sweet and all, but I have had the darnedest time actually buying a book for it (as opposed to downloading freely available books) because I don’t really feel like the books are “real” or “mine” (and technically they’re probably not mine due to the Kindle proprietary format, either).

  7. I think both formats are great, in their own ways.

    But for most books, what I’m buying is the content, not the object. I bought the e-book version of “Fuzzy Nation”, and enjoyed it tremendously. Will that mean I’ll pick up an old-fashioned, dead tree format version of it sometime? Perhaps, at a convention, to be signed.

    I’ve been buying the annual Gardner Dozois best-of-the-year anthology since the third volume, so it’s a tradition to have it on my shelf. But it’s a big, honking volume that my now-nearly-arthritic hands have trouble holding in my preferred reading position. My solution? I buy both the e-book and the dead tree versions.

    E-books are terrible for impulse buys. I love going into a bookstore and just picking up something that goes immediately to the top of the unread pile. Did it this passed weekend, in fact.

    I’m all for e-books. But then, I’m all for anything that makes the public more literate.

  8. Vis a vis physical books never changing what’s in them; well, yes, the one hardback copy I have of the The Sword in the Stone is unalterable…on the other hand, the version of the Sword and the Stone that made it into The Once And Future King has some major differences, particularly of the treatment of Wart’s visit to Morgan Le Fay’s castle, which was charming and alluring in the original SINS and horribly gross and corrupt in TOAFK.

  9. I enjoy having a mix of digital and physical books, and don’t see that changing any time soon. I love reading physical books, living in a house full of books, and loaning my favorites to my friends (let’s get on that, Amazon). At the same time, when I wanted to reread The Mists of Avalon I decided to buy a digital version even though I owned a physical one because it’s such a huge book I really can’t carry it around with me and I do a lot of my reading on the go. Likewise, certain especially wordy authors’ (*coughSandersoncough*) books are so big that the mass paperbacks don’t hold together, so if you want something easy to transport, digital’s the way to go. They’re awesome for vacations too.

    I’m not going to stop buying physical books (at least as long as there are awesome neighborhood bookstores!) but digital ones definitely have their place. I appreciate the concern some folks feel about losing their physical books, but I suspect that they won’t be going away any time soon.

  10. On DRM:
    There exists at least one tool to easily decrypt various types of e-book DRM, however I rather suspect I’d be out of line if I posted a link or Google search terms here.

    Just saying that DRM is not insurmountable and one can use this tool to make extra copies that will survive even if B&N or Amazon go out of business.

  11. I am annoyed by the way he seems to imply that “serious readers” prefer print. My impression is just the opposite, that the more “serious” the reader (and by “serious readers” I mean the ones who buys lots of books; perhaps he means something different), the more likely they are to own an e-reader and to buy e-books.

  12. @ Robin: Although I love browsing bookstores, I find that the low price-point for some digital books makes them even more dangerous for impulse buys, as well as the ease of picking up book two immediately after finishing book one. I’m a sucker for the discounted e-books and have ended up purchasing several series (including the Old Man’s War books, actually) after getting the first one free or cheap. If I’m broke I can always just not go to the bookstore, but the internet is always right there!

  13. OK, did anyone besides me look at the headline and read “Jonathan Frakes” instead of “Jonathan Franzen”?

    After reading the article, my confusion went away, but still…

  14. Two words: memory diamond. While the eminent Charlie Stross coined the term, I’m pretty sure the concept dates from Drexler or earlier. Anyway, the notion is to encode data in impurities within synthetic diamond crystals. Doesn’t get much more nonvolatile than that, for atomic matter anyway.

    I strongly suspect archeological programs will exist in the future for evolving access protocols to read and convert data files stored in obsolete formats. As long as they aren’t encrypted or DRM’d, they should give up their secrets. Maybe not even then:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BA6kG-tOkBs

    Personally, I encrypt my data, but I archive everything important to me unencrypted on optical discs and flash drives, and transfer to new media as needed. Of course you can’t do that with the cloud and still stay secure. The cloud is awesome, but should be used in tandem with other data redoubts. I tried reading one of Franzen’s books, The Corrections a while back. He seems like a nice enough guy, but his writing is awful.

  15. Hey, I’m one of those fogies. I realized this while watching TV, and seeing someone admit to being old, who then said he was born 15 years later than me. I love book, real paper books. I own hundreds of them. They were my salvation from a miserable school.

    Ah, but what do I read? E-books, of course. I have both ‘regular’ osteoarthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis, and holding a book to read can be impossible at times. Heck, sometimes, holding my Nook or my Kindle is impossible, and I read on my PC or my phone. Sometimes, I buy a book twice – once in paper, and once to read. And this does not bother me in the least.

    Because, in the end, I realized that it was never the physical books that rescued me. It was the WORDS! And they’re still doing it.

  16. “it’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction…”

    Really?

    I mean, eye of the beholder, and all that, but yeeesh. That’s a pretty pretentious statement.

  17. I took Franzen’s comment on the malleability of the text to mean that the very work you have on your ereader can be altered without your approval. At least it can in the case of the Kindle, I’m not sure about the Nook, etc. The dystopian implementation of this is the editing of recorded history ala 1984 – the new facts can’t be contradicted because the old facts don’t exist anymore… they’ve been overwritten. This is different than a revised edition – you can get both the original and revised work and even compare them.

    That said, most of my books buys are electronic now. Part of that is space related but much is convenience. I recently discovered Linda Nagata’s Nanotech Succession series. I bought and downloaded the first one, liked it, grabbed the next two. Without leaving the house, at night. I don’t have to worry about whether my local indie bookstore has a copy on the shelf, spend t he $4/gallon gas to get there only to discover that they don’t, etc.

    However, I was cleaning out a closet a few months ago and ran across books I’d not seen since high school. There was something cool about seeing the very book I read so long ago again. Not a copy of the book. Not even a copy of the same edition. The VERY SAME BOOK. Last week I ran across my parents picture of their wedding and pics of myself as a newborn. Again, not reprints… the very photos that were first printed in 1958 and placed in an album all that time ago. Physical artifacts have a draw that no digital artifact can every match. So while I’m certainly no Luddite and will almost certainly buy most of those books that I used to buy as mass market paper backs in ebook form, I recognize the draw of the object.

  18. I like ebooks. Usually they don’t hit me as hard in the wallet as physical books. But, I like getting physical books from my library and I’m not sure about book lending on the kindle. Also, I like appreciating a book’s layout, the way the text has been formatted and such, but that’s the graphic designer coming out in me. Maybe in the future ebooks will be better formatted.

  19. Article Summary: DamnKidsGetOffMyLawn

    Seriously, it is not an either-or. I have tons of both, my biggest complaint about physical books is there are not enough nice ones. Easton press, used Franklin Press, that is about it for real quality. The selection is very limited. Give me more expensive, leather bound books!

    I really doubt regardless of what happens to book stories that we will lose the ability to own a physical book. So what is the point of the complaining?

  20. Quoth Scalzi: “But if Barnes & Noble goes out of business — and it might — then I may be screwed, because there’s no guarantee the access to the book file will survive Barnes & Noble as a company (I have some useless DRMed audio files on my computer as testament of that).”

    Indeed, this is one reason I’ve passed on B&N’s “subscribe to the Nook edition of the NY Times and we’ll give you a free Nook” offer.

    Well, that and because you can’t do the crossword on a Nook, or else you’ll get pencil marks all over the screen.

  21. someone would buy the ebook business, or they would spin it off, even if B&L went byebye.

    Still good arguments against not cracking the DRM

  22. I somehow forgot to order that China Mieville book, so I’ll be happy to take that Perdido Street Station hardcover off your hands, since you already own the ebook version. Yeah, I didn’t think so.

  23. I’m quickly becoming an e-book fan. It’s fun to see Scalzi’s announcement of a new short story and have the thing in hand without having visited a bookstore, , but I do take some comfort that with physical media, George Lucas actually has to break into my house if he wants to alter the copy of Star Wars that I already have.

  24. I’m agnostic about formats too, I’m cool with people publishing their stuff however, but I personally have zero interest in e-books and I don’t see that ever changing.

  25. I just recently got a Kindle Touch and I think it’s great, and I say this as a big fan of physical books who thought he’d never get an ebook reader. The ease of reading and the power to click a button and be reading the book you bought off he internet 5 seconds later is a lot more intoxicating than I thought it would be. Very dangerous for the wallet.

    That being said, I still balk at the idea of not “owning” what I’m reading, and thus having much less control over it. DRM and the inability to loan my favorite reads to my friends is going to slow my adopting the format. (Sharing what I love is the primary reason I have a library.) That being said, I think getting the Kindle will still quickly change my buying habits. I will be reluctant to buy digital copies of books and authors I love and want on my shelf to share with others. But I will be MUCH LESS likely to buy physical copies of books I believe I will only read once and never read again. For that type of read, digital is perfect. In many ways I’m treating it like pulp: buy the cheap stuff, read it, and toss it.

    I do admit that I am also concerned about the “malleability” of ebooks. It’s great for correcting typos and what not, but the idea that someone could go in and alter the text of a book I have already bought is disturbing to me. What if it gets edited for political content? What if, in the Age of Digital Only, the modern equivalent of Huckleberry Finn gets written . . . and then censored. To what can we point and say, “It was not always this way”?

  26. Not that anyone’s said otherwise here, but I always hope people know it’s possible to buy ebooks and support one’s local indie at the same time. A lot of indies sell Google ebooks off their websites. Last week I bought John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars from Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego and happily read it on my Nook.

  27. I will only watch “I love Lucy” on a tube TV. That’s how it was made to be watched. And to hell with you transistor-using blasphemous bastards.

  28. I’m actually in agreement with unholyguy, that it’s really not an either-or and what is the point of complaining. I also hear it through the grapevine (aka Twitter) that Franzen is someone people enjoy making fun of for his curmudgeonliness. Perhaps today he’s just using what he knows is a subject known to get people riled up to get even more attention paid to him.

    I have a Nook. I barely use it. So far, at least 75% of the ebooks I’ve purchased for it (i.e. inexpensive ones – what I could afford to spend) have been hackneyed and lousy and turned out to be self-pubbed or ebook-only imprints. ANd I wouldn’t even *have* the Nook if someone hadn’t gifted it to me. Because I am not one who has disposable income, as a general rule. I look at my shelves, and the bulk of what’s on there was given to me as a gift (I have a wishlist so friends/family know what to look for), or was purchased used (i.e. cheaply). Most of what’s on my Nook is free stuff from Project Gutenburg.

    Last year, Seanan McGuire blogged about the idea that a world that has no more paper books is one more way in which the poor will lose out: http://seanan-mcguire.livejournal.com/390067.html
    She makes some very good points. I really don’t want to see a world without paper books either.

  29. As long as an author’s revisions (or the revisions of an editor, which may or may not have been approved by the author) can be identified as such, I don’t care how many cycles a work goes through. In honor of Alfred Bester’s centennial next year, I have been contemplating whether it would be possible to compile a variorum edition of The Stars My Destination (1956), which certainly needs one. I have not yet read my first e-book, but I suppose it might be possible to use links to show each point of variation (among, in this case, the British version Tiger! Tiger!, the Galaxy magazine serial edited by H. L. Gold, and the first U.S. paperback – all three of which came out around the same time but have a number of differences – along with the version found in the Anthony Boucher-edited Treasury of Great Science Fiction, 1959, the one I first read at age 16 as an SF Book Club member). Has anyone here heard of an electronic variorum edition of any book? Would any current e-book format allow for the all-important Jack Gaughan drawings?

    As for dear old Sam Cogley’s stacks of books, here is a transcription that I found at tvrage.com, to which I’ve made a few tiny alterations from memory:

    Kirk: What is all this?
    Cogley: I figure we’ll be spending some time together, so I moved in.
    Kirk: I hope I’m not crowding you.
    Cogley: What’s the matter? Don’t you like books?
    Kirk: Oh, I like them fine, but a computer takes less space.
    Cogley: A computer, huh? I got one of those in my office. Contains all the precedents, a synthesis of all the great legal decisions written throughout time. I never use it.
    Kirk: Why not?
    Cogley: I’ve got my own system. Books, young man, books! Thousands of them. If time wasn’t so important, I’d show you something–my library. Thousands of books.
    Kirk: What would be the point?
    Cogley: This is where the law is, not in that homogenized, pasteurized, synthesized… do you want to know the law, the ancient concepts in their own language, learn the intent of the men who wrote them, from Moses to the tribunal of Alpha 3? Books.
    Kirk: You have to be either an obsessive crackpot who’s escaped from his keeper or Samuel T. Cogley, attorney-at-law.
    Cogley: Right on both counts.

  30. When I combine Franzen’s comments with Sherman Alexie’s (http://www.edrants.com/sherman-alexie-clarifies-elitist-charges/), I begin to agree that the physical book will survive, sure, but indeed *that’s* what will become the elitist or collector edition. So long as eReaders come down in price point, & so long as eBooks are available cheaply (e.g. the model of making a big name author’s book $2.99 for the week of release show some capitalist savvy), people will flock to them for ease of use & ease of storage – & the ability to make your fonts as small or big as you want.

    And only those who can afford the ‘beautiful object’ of a paper book will buy it. (Which may mean publishers will have to ensure books *are* physically beautiful, & nothing like those rotten 1970s SF books.)

    IMHO.

  31. As far as I’m concerned, Mr Franzen lost any credibility with me when he had to include (A novel) as a subtitle on “Freedom”. It’s in the fiction section, numb-nuts, what was I going to think it was? I will not be retaining the physical, genuine reality-based personification of his fiction because I didn’t buy it.
    I would like to congratulate myself on not using the phrase “pretentious wank” during this comment. Damn.

  32. I was going to go the route that I am personally bothered by the lack of hand copied illuminated texts. I mean those are people that really meant it. They thought it was actually important. None of this impersonal printing business.

    However, I will instead refer to @Gilmoure in the comments on Art, Commerce and Impermanence.
    inscribed clay baked tablets in ceramic jars really mean it.

    I personally am waiting for the clay bake Song of Fire and Ice special edition. A reader who is going to carry that around really appreciates it.

  33. Pfft. I get all my books on papyrus.

    Seriously, I’m not ready to switch over to eBooks yet. I still like the thrill of hunting through yard sales and thrift shops for hidden treasures. The only allure that eBooks hold for me is that they take up less space in my house.

    On the other hand, I absolutely love audiobooks. They aree handy floor keeping me occupied while cleaning and mowing the lawn. I can hunt for audiobooks as wel.

    If you want to see someone who really hates eBooks, find the video of Maurice Sendak from The Colbert Report. He has nothing nice to say about them at all. The bleeps in the video are testimate to that fact.

  34. On the dead-tree-side, my experience has been that the average quality of copy-editing for ebooks is much, much worse than for physical. However, that average is heavily skewed by the huge number of older titles that have been OCRed with no human checks whatsoever. I expect that to improve.

    On the e-side, Franzen’s concern about “malleability” and John’s about potential impermanence aren’t about ebooks. They’re about DRM. It’s only DRM that exposes you to the risk of unnecessary obsolescence, and which forces you to use a reading platform with the ability to change the book. If you avoid (or remove, though I don’t like that idea) the DRM and have any kind of backup strategy worth the name, your book should last you forever.

  35. Lunamoth, I read the linked article and there are valid concerns here. Even a ‘cheap’ e-reader may be expensive, but compare that to killing and transporting trees, and repeating this process for every new book. Paper isn’t getting cheaper, and the existence of a secondary market in physical books depend on the ability of the first reader to afford it.

    OB SF: Ready Player One

    Libraries already lend ebooks. I assume the DRM is set up so that the library can only lend as many copies as it has paid for. The used market is harder to replicate but it might be doable.

    A growing number of people are using phones as their only means of internet access and that has opened up the internet to more people. I suspect that a tech solution can prove more practical than continuing to publish paper books just so that they can be resold on the secondary market.

  36. I buy both. I tend to buy more digital versions these days as well as reading more in that format. Why? Accessibility. I find myself in bookstores less these days, mores the pity.

    Also and importantly, I am a fast reader. Were I to pay the full price for books, I would go broke.

  37. Mr. Scalzi, google ‘de-DRM plugin’ to find the means to remove onerous DRM from your purchased eBooks. I always crack everything I buy, because the odds are I will outlive any particular bookseller/marketing scheme/etc. I *purchase* eBooks rather than renting them, thank you.

  38. A few years back I had laser eye surgery to treat diabetic-related eye problems. The surgery saved my eyesight, but a side effect was that I could no longer read small print in books. So eBooks are a godsend for someone like myself who no longer has the pleasure of being able to read the printed word.

  39. Yeah, and I’m sure it’s sad that people don’t buy albums any more and don’t sit over the cover art and gaze at it and I’m sure audiophiles are really torn up about this, but I like being able to carry my entire music collection in my pocket, so there. Yes, I like seeing all those memories when I look over my bookshelf, but something like 90% of the books I own are the literary equivalent of junk food. They don’t need to be taking up space on my shelves.

  40. “try reading an original science fiction pulp paperback from the 70s or earlier. They were printed on crappy acidic paper that started turning yellow nearly the moment they got off the printing press, the glue on the spine crumbles, and the thing starts falling apart the second you look at it too hard. You can hold one of these books, but if you try to read it, you run a really good chance of destroying it in the process.”

    This is the BEST PART of my old books.
    The smell brings back old memories of reading my parent’s SF as a kid. The original lord of the rings, with the AWESOME nazgul covers.

    Just saying.

  41. I was on the old fashioned, paper is better, side of this until I received a Kindle as a gift.

    Cool things about digital books:

    1. Environmentally friendly. Not just the book itself but all the packing materials not needed for shipping.
    2. Fast! Ordered this – “Tale of the Wicked” on Friday for .99. Received and ready to read in 5 minutes. Have not read it yet, but i could have :)
    3. Free and cheap content. Certainly not everything is cheap electronically, but there is allot of inexpensive content to try. The .99 story noted above is a good example. Not sure I would have bought the story as part of a short story compilation, but for .99 it is a no brainer, and therefore a win win for both John and I.

    Don’t get me wrong I still buy plenty of paper books, and love to shop bookstores and support them. But I think digital will win the day.

  42. This sort of thing, the e-book vs physical copy, strikes very close to home to me as much of my graduate work has been on research into digital archival storage, which is a devilishly hard problem. I may be over-analyzing (a computer scientist who over-things!? SAY IT ISN’T SO!) but even if the book falls apart from the spine of a cheap copy, you can still, with effort, recover the ‘data’ of the book, type into something else, print and go. With a purely digital copy that is far, FAR, harder to do. Tack on our move towards centralized repositories (such as ‘the cloud’, god I that term) with limited numbers of copies (3 is typical) you have a rather precarious situation with a serious risk of permanent data loss/corruption in the long term without very active maintenance. With paper, you can toss it on a shelf, forget about it for 10 years, and come back and have a reasonable chance of having a readable copy. With digital, best of luck to you. Most of the major hard drive manufacturers and software providers are now being shown to grossly over-estimate the effective lifetime and reliability of their respective tools.

  43. @ I.F. Adams

    With digital, best of luck to you. Most of the major hard drive manufacturers and software providers are now being shown to grossly over-estimate the effective lifetime and reliability of their respective tools

    There was an article I came across a few years back where researchers had sampled a cross-section of several major CD libraries for errors. They noted that they started to crop up noticeably, on average, once the media was about 20 years old.

    But the problem with digital storage isn’t merely its stability. It’s the fragility of indexing schemes. Building a scheme with a much more regularized structure than current addressing spaces utilize would make it a lot easier to recover data even if it was partially corrupted (though at the cost of efficiency). Ultimately, though, I think molecularly encoded memory is the wave of the future.

    You know, if Nick Bostrom is right that, provided such is physically possible, we’re probably in a simulated reality, then Frazen and company are actually favoring virtual books over virtual^virtual books.

  44. Pre-KIndle & Nook, my criteria as to what format I preferred rested on one question – can I read it in the bathroom? Nowadays that’s not an issue but the idea of losing access to DRM-protected files disturbs me. So I’ll stick with paperbacks unless the book is available in Acrobat format.

  45. Yeah, agreed. All other things being equal, I prefer the physical book… but other things aren’t equal. Eg., my Kindle can carry thousands of books and travels easily anywhere.

    Also, there’s evidence that ebooks make people read more and alter their habits in desirable ways. Frex, they tend to read entire series.

    Making books more easily accessible and portable is worth some tsuris.

  46. I wonder how much of this desire for the physical book is just another desire for permanence, or to at least have the outside world not impinge quite as resolutely upon our fantasy of immortality.

    On the other hand, I recall watching an episode of Star Trek Next Generation where Jordi asked the computer to play some music, to which it played something “spacey”. Jordi said ‘no, something more classical”, and suddenly I imagined screaming howls of Jimi Hendrix jamming his guitar into a speaker.

    Assuming the copyright to-infinity-and-beyond folks don’t get their way, the public domain is going to grow exponentially. And once you pay for the sunk cost of a player/viewer, that stuff is free for the taking.

    I get cultures change over time, but after a couple hundred years of, say, music culture entering the public domain, how many different ways can you really permutate 12 notes? Books clearly have bigger numbers in the factorial equations, but still. It seems fairly inevitable that non-physical content is unquestionably where it will be at at some point.

  47. “I.F. Adams ” most of what you said is actually not true in my experience. You should research how amazon S3 works, or hdfs or google FS. Those problems are generally solved by replicating the data multiple times.

  48. Today’s mail brought me a copy of Theodora Goss’s new book, The Thorn and the Blossom. The text could exist independently of the physical book, of course, but what a loss that would be! This lovely book can be read both ways through an interleaving process that makes it a joy to behold.

    I have many books in my library that I prize as objects and not just as texts: my signed first edition of Snow Crash (purchased from the remainder table for $10, now woth at least 100 times that); a gorgeous collection of books published by Golden Gryphon Books; books published by PS Publishing, Subterranean Press, and other small publishers that go out of their way to make their books beautiful and lasting. I carted my entire library from the Bay Area to Sacramento this past summer at an enormous cost, and I didn’t regret a single one of the 350 boxes.

    But I also have a Kindle.

  49. Something I’ve wondered about is whether anyone will be able to read my thumb drive in 50 years.

    Tying back to the previous post about impermanence, ebooks are digital renderings that have to be translated to an analog format in order to be read, and this is done with coding schemes. Whether it’s ASCII or EBCDIC or Unicode, if your hardware/software combo can’t read it, you can’t see it.

    No doubt we’ll have new entrants in that arena. I don’t think there’s any guarantee that the novel that exists in electronic form today will get converted to whatever flavor of coding takes hold a century from now. The idea that information can never get lost in this age of the Internet is highly optimistic. Information gets lost all the time for purely mundane reasons — we simply don’t take the time to copy it.

    Anyone still have an 5.25″ floppy drive?

  50. He seemed to imply Walter Berglund, one of his main characters from “Freedom” would agree with him; Walter expressed his concern over too much technology. On the other hand, Walter was concerned with the environment. E-books save trees!

  51. I have found that I like both, tho I do not have a reader, just apps on my laptop. The ebook format came in handy when that was the only available from my local Library. It was really handy when I was rereading a set and could not find the book 2 I do own. The Baen Free libarary did have it, thank goodness. I may or may not get a reader in the future. I’m still working on my ever growing stack of to be read and that stuff I keep checking out from the Library. Funny – I remember the book Cyberbooks by Ben Bova from 1990 about ebooks. Not quite the same now.

  52. This guy has obviously never lived in a tiny NYC apartment. I have no more ROOM for hard copies of books. As it is, I’ve had to get rid of many so that I could have the books I got as gifts, etc. So, for me to stick with the “paper” version only, I’d either have to quit reading, or marry a sugar-daddy who could afford to buy me a huge home – something to which I’m sure my husband would object.

    As it is, I can carry my Kindle around, and I’m never out of something to read. Stuck on the train? I have access to books. Finished my book whilst waiting for the doctor? Get a new one.

    Bonus part? I’m not killing a tree every time I want the latest bit of pulp fiction to entertain me. Sounds like a win all around, to me.

  53. About 10 years ago my law firm decided to cut down on the physical books in our library. One of my partners objected. He doesn’t have a computer in his office; the only attorney in my firm to make that decision, and his concerns mirrored Frantzen’s.

    I remember the partner’s meeting where this was discussed, and trying to explain to him that what was of value to us was not the physical form, but the data contained therein. There’s a significant difference between fiction and reported decisions. Our case reporters were updated once a month with inserts that fit into the back of the hard-cover volume of a reporter; other supplements we filed away until the next hard-cover volume came out. The electronic version of the same cases are released within days, and there’s an advantage to having the most recent case-law in my profession that doesn’t really translate to literature.

    But the point is the same; what we’re interested in ultimately is not really the tactile thing. It’s the story. The tactile thing may have an aesthetic value to some of us, but give me a choice between a beautiful leather-bound novel that bores me and a good story in electronic format, and I’m going to choose the latter every time.

  54. I think the biggest tragedy of the e-book is the lack of standard format. I get that this is how B&N can compete with Amazon and whomever. But, as you say, in the long run, I picture it being yet another version of music’s migration from lp, 8track, cassette, cd, mp3. How many versions of the Beatles Greatest Hits have I bought? I prefer not to say.
    My physical book, assuming I don’t buy pulp, will probably at least survive my lifetime.

    The other advantage of a physical book is its…search-ability isn’t the right word. I can find my place in a physical book within seconds. I don’t need a place marker to do so. A small amount of elimination through page flipping – I’ve found it. I don’t mean this for where I left off reading chronologically. I mean that when I re-read my favorite books, I often pick them up at a favorite scene. I can find it in moments. Its not easy to do with out bookmarkers in my Kindle.

    I still adore my Kindle. Its instant gratification of whatever I buy. Its available to me just about anywhere, since its on my smartphone, the kindle, my laptop and the internet cloud reader. You cannot deny the comfort of finding your book anywhere.

    But I still love having a physical version of the books that are my old friends. I know where I’m going when I pick up the physical book.

  55. The “but your house could catch on fire!” argument has always seemed disingenuous to me. I got my first computer 25 years ago. I’ve had several hard drives explode on me, countless flash drives and other portable media go bad, bad sectors, massive format changes (from Commodore 64 to Mac to various flavors of Windows back to Mac again) and so on and so forth. The oldest file I have on my computer is about eight years old. Data loss isn’t theoretical. It’s unavoidable.

    I still have books that I was given as an infant. I have comics that I bought when I was nine. I can probably count the number of physical books or comics that I’ve had destroyed on, at most, two hands. Yeah, my house could burn down. You know what? It ain’t gonna. That Kindle? Damn near guaranteed it’s not going to work anymore for one reason or another in less than a decade.

    No thank you.

  56. Haven’t yet purchased an e-reader, but that has more to do with finances than feelings against the format. I was happy to download Piper’s “Little Fuzzy” when it wasn’t readily available at the local library, & digital reading is just fine. I’m glad we have so many options.

    The place where an electronic format starts to feel insecure to me, is on something like an employee manual at one’s job – they could just change what it said about, say, the amount of vacation days you get after x number of of years, and you’d have no way to prove that it was ever anything else. In those situations, I want [100% recycled] paper every time.

  57. My mother and I had this very discussion not too long ago. I told her I felt tat by the time my 3 year old granddaughter is well into school she will be handed an e-reader instead of textbooks. She was appalled by the thought. Personally I love my e-reader; it gives me a portable library that weighs next to nothing. I don’t have to pick and choose what books to take on a plane, on vacation, to the beach, etc… they all go along.

    I do understand the desire for the tactile sensation of holding a “real” book, the desire to hear the crinkling sound of the pages as you turn them. A book can be a friend, a comfort even, when you hold it in your hands. So I have compromised…

    My Nook currently has over 200 books on it (yes I have all the Scalzi books!) and the number increases weekly. I also have an old oak bookcase in the corner that belonged to my grandfather. I use it to store “real” books that have some special meaning to me. Childhood favorites, a family bible, a book my father wrote inside, stories that touched me in some way that made me want a physical copy of them…

    There is no right or wrong here, but I stick to what I told my mother… there will be a time when they stop printing books on paper, that book ownership will be a luxury, and every kid will be issued an e-reader when they hit school!

  58. The debate is going to stay for a while, i guess.
    I love my books. I love seeing them in my bookcases. I love the touch of them, the smell. Opening a new book takes me back to my dad’s printing shop. I like to run through a book, turn the pages… Yes, it’s pretty much about nostalgia. Surely a paper book is beautiful, isn’t it.
    So i never thought that i would ever ever be reading a book on one of those stupid and cold tablets..! Well, here I am! I have started doing so. And, omg, is it practical!! I really travel a lot, so I am glad I don’t have to drag some volumes along in my handluggage anymore. I have lived in 4 different countries, and every time I take my whole collection with me. And now in NYC all of a sudden the problem of space has arisen (does this word exist?). Luckily the appartement had built-in shelves. But in a couple of months, I will be moving to another place, and, frankly, I’m afraid I will have to make a selection of a selection of a selection. With some pain in my heart.
    So, the digital book is a very good invention for me.
    Sure, some books I will never part with. I am talking about art books, photography and handmade or handprinted books. So I am very happy that the ‘old fashioned’ book will surely survive in this form. It is a fact that there’s a boom in art books.

  59. MBL:

    “The ‘but your house could catch on fire!’ argument has always seemed disingenuous to me.”

    You don’t have to go even that far, however. I had my basement flood a couple of times; I lost dozens of books the first time (fewer the second time because I learned not to put cardboard boxes on the floor). There are lots of ways to lose books before you get to fire. On the other hand, I have data on my archive drive that dates back 15 years. I have to update my archive drive from time to time, but it’s not an onerous process (If I don’t I’ll definitely regret it, however).

  60. @ MLB

    Data loss isn’t theoretical. It’s unavoidable.

    It’s minimizable to the point where, for most folks, it’s at least no more than paper-data loss and potentially a lot less. RAID arrays, regular, automatic online backups, offline copies. Data retention is like exercise, just because some choose to do it sporadically or not at all doesn’t mean it’s an unattainable goal.

    That Kindle? Damn near guaranteed it’s not going to work anymore for one reason or another in less than a decade.

    Which is only a problem because of the DRM, which is why won’t touch e-books and made my own MP3s until a couple years ago when downloads left DRM behind.

    To each their own, but if I kept all my old fiction books, I’d have long since run out of shelf space.

  61. What Sara said….I think random access is what she was implying, that’s the term that comes to mind for me. Flip, flip and you are there. ebooks are MUCH harder to get around in if you haven’t marked the spot. And I never seem to to easily find a specific passage on an ebook. With that said, I have a stuffed Kindle.

  62. My grandfather was a printer in San Francisco for fifty years — Mackenzie and Harris, if there are any Bay Area letterpress folks in the audience — and if there was ever a man who loved the printed word, it was him. A union man, mind you, and he always taught me to take whatever printed material was offered to “keep the printers busy” — but he understood that most books were meant as commodities, to convey an idea. Handsomely, if possible, but affordable as a matter of practice. Sure some books could be made to last for years, but mostly they’re to be read until they fall apart. I’m guessing he’d be delighted with Kindle and its ilk since they did what the printed word was supposed to do — get the ideas out there.

  63. This is all so laughably similar to the “real writers don’t use word processors” arguments of the mid 80s. You just keep on yelling at that tide, Jonathan.

  64. @AlanM: If 90% of the books you own are useless, then…um…why do you keep them? Trade them in at Powell’s or Paperbackswap for books you want. Give them to Friends of the Library. Pass them on to friends and relatives who will enjoy them.

    @Deborah Biancotti (and anyone else arguing about the Age of Cheap Ereaders): I really, really urge you to carefully read Seanan McGuire’s link that Lunamoth posted above. Ms. McGuire makes some very clear and painful points about how “available” and “affordable” e-readers are for rather a lot of people, and how much data insecurity there is for the poor. If you lose a $1 paperback from the thrift store or library bin, that’s far less devastating than if your entire fucking library vanishes because some asshole thought it would be a good idea to break it, or steal it, or pawn it. And not everybody has a nice laptop with an Amazon Prime account to hook that “affordable” e-reader up to.

  65. This is all so laughably similar to the “real writers don’t use word processors” arguments of the mid 80s. You just keep on yelling at that tide, Jonathan.

    Ah, yes… and would this be the same 80s awash with confident predictions we’d all be tele-commuting to paperless offices by now? In the end, I think Franzen has smothered some sound (or at least defensible) points with the Pillow of Hyperbole – as evangelists are wont to do. But as John puts it, I’m format agnostic and in the current economy an e-reader is not terribly high on my list of things to save for. But I know others (folks with visual impairments, others who turn over a lot of popular genre fiction but seldom re-read it etc.) for whom digital books are even better than sliced bread.

  66. But the point is the same; what we’re interested in ultimately is not really the tactile thing. It’s the story. The tactile thing may have an aesthetic value to some of us, but give me a choice between a beautiful leather-bound novel that bores me and a good story in electronic format, and I’m going to choose the latter every time.

    @Robert: I take your point, as far as it goes – I do a lor of research on line, and while (for example) I’d love to have a complete Oxford English Dictionary about the house, it’s a lot more convenient to access it online through the local library website. (Hell, my rates are contributing a couple of cents to the license after all.) But don’t be too sniffy about “the tactile thing” – I own a Bible that used to belong to my father. The text could easily be found on any number of websites or e-books, but there’s something very pleasant about handing the leather binding or casually flicking through the pages until some favourite passage catches my eye. It doesn’t have to be a zero sum game, does it?

  67. I started having this discussion with a friend, oh, 15 or so years ago. He firmly believed that within 20 years of that time, printed books would basically have disappeared. I didn’t say he was wrong–I refuse to try to predict the rate of technological change–but I did point out that the book itself is a piece of technology that has lasted for close to 1500 years mainly because it works so well with the way the human animal perceives and absorbs information. I maintained then that until someone came up with an ereader that did all the things that printed books do more effectively than printed books, printed books would still in demand. And it had to be more effectively, I believed–technology that just works almost as well as (or even perhaps as well as) comfortable, familiar technology tends to get ignored, in my opinion. And I didn’t see that level of effectiveness in what was available in 1995.

    However. When I saw my first Kindle a few years ago, I knew we were getting there (and an awful lot sooner than I’d thought it would happen, to be honest), but I really don’t think it’s quite happened yet. At least, I have to make an adjustment to use an ereader. I read more slowly, I don’t scan or flip pages the same way, I am far more aware that I am “reading” a book than I am with a printed book, when I often forget the object that I hold in my hands exists because it feels so natural–reading on screen (any screen, and I’ve tried several) eventually makes my eyes hurt, and so on. It’s an adjustment I often don’t mind making, but it is still there.

    Why is it an adjustment I don’t mind making? Because we did get to the point where digital forms are more effective for some things. Printed books were never very good at simply storing information, for example, especially not ephemeral information (like telephone directories); they are at best mediocre in terms of portability (as many of the comments above have pointed out), and–fill in the benefit of your choice; I know there are several. But until ereaders do everything that printed books do, for most (if not all) readers, I think printed books will still be with us as more than “objects of art” (though they’ve always been that, too, really). Actually, I suspect what we’d need is an entire generation or two that first learned to read on ereaders–and we’re a long way from that yet, too, especially world wide. Until that point, I think we’ll still have printed books. Just, maybe, not so many of them–and far more in fiction and entertainment reading than any other other type.

  68. I agree, there’s just something about a physical copy of a book that I still love. I also enjoy browsing and oftentimes stumbling upon something new or unexpected at the old bookstore. Whether that be the local B&N, or maybe the used bookshop, it all depends on my mood.

    I also see the value in digital/ePublishing like the Nook and Kindle. It is great that it opens up new opportunities for new writers to get their work out there and make a little dough in the process. Devices like the Kindle, or e-reader software for an Android or iPhone or iPad also seems to make a lot of sense for getting more short stories in front of people’s eyeballs. Personally, I’d much rather have short stories on a portable device like that, but leave the longer form stuff like a novel or collected edition of a comic book to good old printed form.

    So going forward, I see the hybrid approach being the norm. Especially now that just about everybody and his brother, mother, and great grandmother has a smart phone capable of handling some sort of e-reader app.

  69. Ebooks are going to change the way we read and they are going to change the way we write.

    When was the last time you opened an old ebook and flipped through it? In an article for the NYT, Lev Grossman made a good argument that we read differently on an e-book, from start to finish with no jumping around. When I am reading The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman that works fine for me. With the Culture books by Ian Banks, not so much. Flipping back a few pages to check a character name or re-read a bit that strikes me only later as having been significant, or particularly artful– is a pain in the neck in an ebook format.

    All of us old style readers are used to having the whole book easily available to us. Old style writers write with that in mind. Over time I think paper books will become an insupportable luxury for most readers, and I think we will see our writing conventions change to make reading on the ebook more pleasant. Maybe that will mean more repetition in a text, or more straightforward storytelling. I think the new conventions will work better for some writers than for others.

    I don’t think this is like moving from LP to CD. This is going to be more like the change from silent movies to talkies. I’m a little anxious, but there’s not much I can do about it.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/04/books/review/the-mechanic-muse-from-scroll-to-screen.html

  70. Just because you have an ebook doesn’t mean your printer suddenly stops working. If you open an ebook in Calibre, there’s a big ol’ print button right on the side there. What you say? The DRM won’t let you? Just ask the guy who keeps bragging about how he rooted or jailbroke his phone. He’ll know how to help you out.

    Also, try this little experiment. if you have a niece or nephew, or son or daughter, or someone relatively close to you, graduating 7th grade, go to their school’s website, and take a look at their reading lists up until the 12th grade. Now look and see how many of those titles are available on Gutenberg, and the fact that the nook simple is only $100.

    As an aside, one thing I love about the nook, and B&N don’t seem to push this very much, is that the nook is already preset to use in store wifi. One thing they do with that is make special offers in the coffee shop. Yawn. The thing they do that’s cool, though, is in store, you can read a significantly large selection of books, including OGH’s, for up to an hour each. Now while I would never just park myself in the coffee shop and read books off the shelves with no intention of buying, I feel eminently comfortable doing that with my nook.

  71. I am for the printed book though I do own a kindle (for all those classics that would take up space and holiday books). My problem with ebooks is that I think they will hurt publishing in the end. Music is my main argument to support this.

    I purchased a large ipod recently and I placed every single cd my wife and I owned onto it. The cd’s then went in the loft (great space saver!). But I find since then that we do not listen to music as much as we used to. The hassle in finding something you want to listen too. Even the impetus to listen in the first place has gone. In the past we would have a group of cds sitting on the shelf and we would see something and think – oo lets play that. That has gone. If books become e-reader based then the same thing may happen.

    I remember a university lecturer telling us to all go and buy books. We didn’t have to read them as we would ‘absorb information subconsciously’ – his point was not that that would actually occur but we would see them and be able to open and read them at some point if we owned them and needed to. The key being to see them. This is less true perhaps to dedicated readers now but more for the children growing up today. Plus you will get all the bells and whistles (here the sounds of the book as you read!, watch animations!) which will blur the line between a good book in the real sense and web page reading.

    Anyway some bullet point predictions
    -e-books will probably take over.
    -Books will become expensive objects for the rich and eccentric.
    -It will become much easier for governments to control books contents if they wanted to
    -People will read less words and more multi-media
    -It will become much harder to make a career out of writing because the quality control of the publishers will be gone (ok some good authors get missed but most of the time if they push someone it is a decent author) and a huge amount of bad amateurs will flood the electronic market with their own work.
    – Book shops will go out of business and it will thus be more difficult for authors to break into the market as people will not walk into a shop and browse and pick out a random title they think they might try
    -Our children will be more likely to reading a multi-media experience than a book itself
    -Piracy will ensure books can be downloaded for free much easier.
    -Lending books will disappear (and lending books are often a way of introducing authors. I was leant a copy of Peter F Hamiltons Reality Dysfunction and loved it so much I have read everything by him since. If someone had said – “this is great! go spend £16 buying it so you can see what you think” I might not have bothered and hence loads of book sales would not have occurred). Ok you can lend some titles for a short time but that is not quite the same especially if person A has not finished the book in question.

    In my opinion book are a tactile as well as an intellectual and visual pleasure. e-books can never do that. What ebooks can (and should do) is

    – hold those books that you like to have but don’t necessarily want clustering your bookcases
    – course books at school

    The publishers in the end will kill themselves though as they are not looking at the lessons of music (sell books at £1 or $1 and people would buy them very quickly) instead they are selling at print prices or close enough (the argument e-books cost as much as print books is rubbish), trying to lock down rights so that you have to re-buy or for libraries to pay a fee after 7 reads (7? I have library read library books which have been taken out 50-60 times without needing replacing) and all the drm stuff they love. This makes piracy viable. Admittedly piracy and the decline of print books will force down book prices but that is often too late.

    Anyway I have babbled enough. I hope I am wrong and the e-book ushers in a new age of enlightened reading but to me it solves a problem we have not got.

  72. There’s some kind of irony attached to the fact that the entire first print run of Franzen’s last book had to be recalled and pulped in the UK because the printer somehow got the wrong file. Permanence isn’t always a virtue.

  73. Resistance to change is very common. After having a Kindle for a bit more than a year, I have happily surrendered to the future. I drive a car too, no horse for me.

  74. I love physical books and I also hate them.

    I love them because, as others have pointed out, they are a tactile thing. A book, even an old, crappy, second-hand one, has a look, feel and smell that appeals to me on some deeply primitive level.

    I hate them because, especially in recent years, the size format often makes them unwieldy and difficult to hold, especially the longer tomes. In addition, I have two very mismatched eyes in terms of myopia, so trying to read a book in bed is an exercise in frustration because one page will be in focus and the other not. This leads to a lot of shuffling and moving around in order to get the optimum distance for viewing in order to avoid eye-strain.

    For me, ebooks address all the problems I have with physical books, but the trade-off is that they also remove all that I appreciate about the physicality of an actual dead-tree version.

    The entire argument for and against reminds me very much of the “vinyl will always sound better than digital” comments from days of yore, and the follow-up “mp3’s will never replace CD’s” that later followed.

    As with the music example all ebook formats are equally valuable but it’s a personal choice based on user preference that decides the issue. For me, ebooks are more convenient. But I would hate to think that there might come a day where physical books cease to be produced altogether. That would be a dark day indeed.

  75. I personally do not think the vinyl comparison is relevant. The cd – digital one is very viable though (and look at the vast drop in record sales that has started occurring – I think books will hit the same problems).

    The ‘permanence’ argument is also I feel a bit overused by e-book readers. e-books are dependant on the reader. If in 20 years a new reader comes out that does not ‘read’ your current format then would you replace your collection? It can happen along with power problems, corruption/viruses, business logic after all if a music manufacturer has managed to get you to buy the same record on vinyl then tape then cd then why not try the same for books and if it makes money it will be done.

    The other thing is that how many books has anyone here read from say the early 18th century? Very few I would guess. Dickens or Tolstoy perhaps. Books last long enough for the readers of the time they are written in plus the nostalgia run when those readers grow older (providing a double buy as those readers (currently) try to get hold of books they read once and now no longer have).

    Books have no need to last longer than this period as people in 50-60 years will not be reading the majority of those books. The best – and by the best I mean the Tolkiens, dickens, trollopes get reprinted the rest disappear. Provide a longer period and even the language starts making reading difficult.

    This could be taken as an argument for ebooks – i.e all these disappearing books will not be propping up a second hand market but will be available for people to read in 100 years. But who will want to read them? The publishing industry will want you reading new stuff that is under copyright so they can get paid (if it still exists). They certainly would not want everyone reading copyright freed books of the past.

    The biggest arguments against books in the current format are
    -waste of paper thus resources
    – weight of some books (make them smaller then, split the book in two)
    -space in peoples houses.

    Otherwise this is not progress and moving from a horse to a car , it is replacing a successful, popular format with something which will lessen all of us in the end and the sad thing is we wont care. When e-books win people will not know any different.

    Joss.

  76. I’ve thought Franzen was a jerk for years. This only confirms it.

    As for me – I’ve had a Nook for two years and read (and buy) more books now, of both types, than I did before. I’ve also enriched my favorite authors by buying electronic copies for myself and loaner copies of certain titles for my friends, especially paperbacks….

  77. I like ebooks for the same reasons I like .mp3 downloads for music: because they don’t take up space. Because there are no objects for me to have to store, move around, dust over. I have more *objects* in my life than I want right now, and never enough space. Gah.

    Also, I like the idea of being able to carry my entire library around with me everywhere I go. I can’t *quite* make that happen right now — not all of the books in my library available as ebooks yet, and, unlike CDs, it’s hard to rip the ones I have to ebooks, and I’m not interested in re-buying *all* of them. But someday, man, someday.

  78. A couple of things that I’ve noticed about e-books vs. paper:

    1. I lose something in the building of tension because I don’t know how much of the book is left. Yes, I know that I can tap on the screen and see a progress bar, but it’s not like having a book in your hand and wondering, “How’s he going to solve this in the next 20 pages?”.

    2. While I can format the page in just about any way I want, the author or the publisher cannot, or at least can’t be sure of what it will look like. Mostly this isn’t important, but I can think of a few books where this would be critical. For instance, Alasdair Gray’s “Lanark” relies heavily on pagination at one point, with page headers summarizing and commenting on the action on that page.

    I think of this like MP3. MP3 didn’t faithfully recreate the full spectrum of vinyl, tape, CD or whatever, but eventually artists adapted to the medium. I’m sure that writing will change somewhat to adapt to the new technology.

  79. Everyone is missing the point; we should not be using paper or some digital hokum for our precious written words. No, we should be using stamped metal sheets. Think of the humble military dog tags: able to withstand years of abuse, and nigh indestructible. It would seem to be the perfect solution. Although, a book written on dog tags would present its own challenges, such as the tiny pages, and having to find enough soldiers to store it on.

  80. Psst… quick typo to fix: “I can read it one one”
    Signed,
    Your friendly neighborhood freelance copy editor

  81. “Franzen’s also apparently charmingly naive about the number of copy errors that make it through the editorial process, despite everyone’s best efforts.”

    –>I didn’t see anything in the linked article suggesting that. Was it elsewhere?

    I’m certain that electronic copyediting (i.e. using track changes in Word) has increased the number of errors that slip through (it also causes new errors, because most authors–and many CEs–are not hip to the extra spaces or doubled punctuation that are hiding at the ends of the changes).

    But that’s before the typesetting happens. Anyone who thinks that the print edition of a book is cleaner than the e-edition has no idea what’s happening on the production end. We use the exact same files to produce both. At my company, we’ve instituted a policy of waiting until the final (print) proofs are approved, and then taking the text from that version to make the ebook.

  82. I miss scrolls. Vellum–now that was a medium you could really enjoy holding in your hands. Had it all over flimsy papyrus. And somebody cared enough to inscribe words BY HAND on those precious sheets, not to mention the often delightful illustrations that were unique to my particular scroll. I think Jonathan Franzen should get off my lawn.

  83. Re: Sara at 2159 on 1/30

    Just because nobody else has countered this argument (searchability of physical media), I’ll swallow the emotional response I have to this and just point out that it counters what I think of as common belief. There’s a reason for the expression, “You can’t grep dead trees.” For non-fiction, especially, physical books are almost impossible to search without a great (not just good) index. Electronic copies, on the other hand, essentially have keyword search built in. Even for fiction, it’s rare that I’m looking for a passage where I can’t remember at least one phrase to search for, where on a paper copy I’m stuck with trying to remember where in the possibly non-linear narrative flow the passage occured.

    I’m, well, I started to say agnostic about the overall issue, but that’s not it — I do believe that there’s a right answer, and that’s that the answer to “Coke or tacos?” is “Yes,” but on this particular subissue I think there’s a clear advantage to electronic copy.

  84. DRM on e-books only bothers me for things I expect to read again, which is a minority of my reading. On the other hand, not being able to resell a book makes it vastly more expensive for a one-time read. My library has dipped its toe into lending e-books, but so far such services are tied to the technology of one or another third-party business.

    Then again, I don’t own a good e-book reader yet. But I’m sure I will within a year or so.

  85. Print or eBooks, once I start reading the “device” vanishes. It’s the words that matter. I switched to eBooks mainly for convenience and donated or threw out the vast majority of my print collection. I can now maneuver around my home office without dodging piles of books.

    On top of that, I enjoy reading Franzen’s articles in the New Yorker, and I find the Kindle’s built-in dictionary pretty useful when reading them.

  86. “I purchased a large ipod recently and I placed every single cd my wife and I owned onto it. The cd’s then went in the loft (great space saver!). But I find since then that we do not listen to music as much as we used to.”

    Interesting. I love my iPod. My favorite songs go with me everywhere. I would note that I didn’t convert my entire CD collection, because frankly, in my experience, there are usually only 2 or 3 songs on any CD that are worth listening to over and over. The great thing about MP3 and such is that I no longer have to shell out money for an entire CD when all I want is that one song. If anything, I listen to music more now because it’s so portable and easy to organize.

    I got a Kindle for my birthday, and it now has a few books on it. At this point, however, I’m still working through my pile of library books, the paper and ink kind. When I’m done, I’ll try the Kindle.

    I don’t have a strong bias against ebooks. In fact, my own books are published as ebooks. But I admit to feeling that my first book, which is also available in print, feels much more “real” and permanent. My second book has never been anything more than 1s and 0s, and it probably won’t go into print. Because I’m all too aware of the constantly changing nature of technology, that book seems more ephemeral.

  87. I’ve read most of the comments here and I have a hard time with the ‘fire and flood’ arguments. I’ve got paperbacks in my library from 40 years ago that I’ve re-read recently (does take a little care in handling them, but not too bad). I’ve lost a handful of books to environmental hazards (and saved at least one that I cared about from water damage with a hair dryer and careful page flipping). The moment that the industry moves to a standard format without hard-lock DRM I’ll probably just in with both feet.

    I have somewhat abstract objections to the ‘can’t sell used ones’ issue. I think it is a problem, but I generally don’t sell my books, so it doesn’t bite me much. I have bigger issues with the ‘can’t loan’ problem…I’ve had plenty of cases where I loved a book and loaned my copy to one or more friends to get them excited about that author or sub-genre…generally gotten them back later too :) The biggie for me though is the portability thing. I’m pretty sure that whatever hardware is currently tops for reading on won’t be tops in ten years. I’m not willing to have a kindle, nook, ipad, etc. all hanging around so that I can get access to my accumulated library over time. Sell me the blasted book in a standard format and let me take all of my kindle books over to my foobar reader when those guys (who probably aren’t even out of college yet) release their great new device.

    I know I can strip DRM from most of the current crop of readers (all maybe even) but I’m uncomfortable doing that. I’m still not willing to buy a device knowing that I’ll have to violate my licencing agreement and create marginally legal ebooks just so my library can move wherever I want it to. Hoping this will play out like music did with MP3 files, but so far it looks like Amazon and B&N are holding all the cards and doing quite well with their little walled gardens of text…

  88. The “paper-less office” reference a few comments back reminds me of when I was working for a small manufacturing firm as accountant, and convinced the boss we’d gain a lot of speed and manpower (not to mention accuracy) by computerizing our inventory (and later, sales analysis, customer accounts, and eventually payroll records). More importantly, I convinced him to go with a programming language (specifically, dBase) rather than off-the-shelf applications, by pointing out that we might periodically change our minds about what info was useful and it would be much easier and cheaper to make changes to the programming and, if necessary, the database structures, in-house rather than hunt for more appropriate software, or worse yet, hire an outsider to come in and reprogram.

    In the process of fine-tuning the PRG’s (high-level source code, very similar to Basic), I found it was much easier to review and edit them on hard-copy printouts rather than on-screen. And I found my waste baskets were filling up *much* faster than pre-computer.

    And back to the main topic … I personally have a strong preference for physical books, preferably MM paperbacks. Sure, they’re not permanent, but anything worth re-reading numerous times is very likely to also be reprinted many times, and I expect that situation won’t change in the foreseeable future. In the case of some strong favorites, I’ve bought reprints as the old ones wore out heaven knows how many times.

  89. I’m sure I’m walking over trails many previous posters have trod, but (1) I love old books, having gone on a tear a few years ago buying books my preacher great-grandfather published, mainly of old sermons, that filled in a lot of blanks about our family history and (2) I dearly, dearly LOVE my Nook Color that I use practically every day, reading new books and re-reading others I’ve purchased over the last year or so.

    The argument about “paper vs. digital” sounds a lot to me like the arguments made about the Internet when it first arose out of the digital waters on its shaky feet–“What are we going to use THIS for?” and “I don’t trust anything on a computer–give me paper copies, by God!”. Eventually we all learned to live with the monster, even with its myraid weaknesses, as we will with ebooks.

  90. I would awfully like to know whether Mr. Franzen has to take public transport everywhere … if he did, his opinion might just be coloured more by practicality than aesthetics. And, anyway, why are we griping about wonderful existing technology when nobody’s invented the personal forcefield yet, to protect those of us who use public transport from other people’s invasion of our space by both physical, aural AND olfactory means? :)

  91. For myself, I used to live in a “paper-only” world. I’d hate to live in an “e-media only”, seeing as my exposure to both options is useful to me and many other people as well.

  92. It took many years, but I do work in a largely paperless office. I don’t print as often as once a week. Modern screens have enough lines that I don’t feel the need to print code to read it for debugging. Laptop computes and projection screens mean that we aren’t passing out stacks of paper for document & code review meetings.

  93. I can understand not remembering to play music because you don’t see it. It’s happened more than once that my wife or I have caught a favorite movie on cable in progress with commercials, and continued to watch it, when we could have watched it from the beginning at any time on DVD.

  94. I love reading. I have both a good collection of books in various formats and a Kindle which has a good assortment of books on it. With a well-written story, I can lose myself in the world of the book regardless of the medium (e-ink or paper). Both have their place.
    I love re-reading books; some of my books are old friends, and take me back to where I first read the book.

    I love dragging my Kindle with me on trips; it is a lot easier than lugging half-a-dozen paperbacks to amuse me on the journey. I can buy books along the way, which is nice, and there is a good selection.
    However, there was always the fun of scouring airport bookshops for something to pass the time; we have a couple of shelves of what are loving called “airplane books” or “you bought what?”
    So the e-book works well for me, as part of an overall reading/literary experience.

    But…
    Sometimes, I love the sensual nature of reading a book on paper; smelling the ink, paper and binding (we shall not talk of “The Cat Pee Incident”, thank you). It adds to the pleasure, just as playing cards in the casino is more pleasurable to me than playing on-line.

  95. I’ve noticed a lot of the arguments for why people favor books over ebooks are akin to arguments one can make over why horses are preferable to automobiles. The look and feel, etc. The thing is, the superiority of horses over cars in some areas was outweighed by the advantages of cars over horses in others. In some areas, books may be superior but the question is whether those bits of superiority are enough to compensate for the areas where ebooks are superior to books.

    My own feeling is that the infrastructure behind the paper book industry is going to collapse and transform into a print-on-demand service for people who want their ebooks in physical form.

  96. Erm… So books are unchanging? Did anyone think to tell Michael Moorcock before he revised the ending of Gloriana???

  97. John, did you intend the “or” in the 4th sentence of the 4th paragraph after the large block quote in your post to say “on”? I was initially confused by it.

    My prediction – if someone offers an e-reader that recreates illustrations with high fidelity, and has a voice activated search function, they could grab a huge slice of consumers who aren’t sold on the technology yet. I would love to ask my e-reader, “Who was the ship pilot from three scenes ago?” and have it answer quickly. It would cut down on the page turning that disconnects me from the story. Sell it for $100, and it would be golden. Maybe it’s already out there and I don’t know about it. Granted, programming answers for each individual title would be a huge undertaking. Maybe common questions and answers for each title could be crowd sourced from those who buy the book on day one, and then added to later editions/updates?

    Also, I would love to use an e-reader that could effectively predict what titles I would like to buy and read. Like Pandora radio, but for books.

  98. mythago asks: @AlanM: If 90% of the books you own are useless, then…um…why do you keep them?

    I didn’t say “useless”; I said “the literary equivalent of junk food”. They are fun and forgettable (cheesy fantasy, detective novels, etc). And I’m not keeping all of them. I did get rid of a bunch of books – mostly ones that I didn’t like the first time around. The next pass will be getting rid of the ones that I liked okay the first time around, but will never read again (made marginally more complicated by the fact that my wife might like to read them. Although our tastes differ). Before that I should probably get rid of the books that I never even read once, but keep around because they make me look all intullecshual and stuff.

    Really, I think about 15% of my library consists of books that I’ll actually ever bother reading again or with which I have some sort of strong emotional connection. It’s not that the other 85% weren’t good, it’s just that there is so much new stuff out there to read that I’ll be forever “getting around to it later”.

    Todd Stull: Also, I would love to use an e-reader that could effectively predict what titles I would like to buy and read. Like Pandora radio, but for books

    I buy plenty of books as it is, thank you very much. I don’t need an ereader feeding my habit.

    One thing that probably *will* happen before too long, once the publishers get over their fear of ebooks, is the “complete collection”. “Hey, I noticed you just bought a book by John Scalizi. Would you like to buy everything he wrote for $50? I’ll throw in the complete Charles Stross for another $50. We also have a great deal on “Everything ever written by anyone, ever”.”

  99. When I was little, I used to want to live in the library. It was about the books, and about the atmosphere created by the books. The quiet of a room filled with people who are thinking, which I find similar to the atmosphere of an art museum’s gallery.

    I went through a hard period and sold my library for food. I was surprised at how hard I took it afterwards. Until I had to live with the results, I didn’t realize that my own shelves gave me back the shape of my own mind, every day, and in some ways were a better affirmation of my identity than the mirror ever was.

    I like the Kindle. I don’t like the fact that it behaves like every other electronic device I own: an invitation to buy, to interrupt, to stop paying attention right now.

  100. The argument about “paper vs. digital” sounds a lot to me like the arguments made about the Internet when it first arose out of the digital waters on its shaky feet–”What are we going to use THIS for?” and “I don’t trust anything on a computer–give me paper copies, by God!”

    Made by whom? I don’t ever remember hearing this argument. I do remember a lot of predictions about how we’d all be buying everything online and all of the brick-and-mortar stores (ALL OF THEM) would vanish.

    And this is probably why a lot of people are grumpy about e-books. It’s the literature equivalent of the ponytail and black turtleneck. Technology cannot co-exist with pre-existing technology – there can be only one! New is always best! If you disagree you are a Luddite!

  101. Oh Franzen, you pretentious sourpuss. I first got an iTouch when I was making a 4.5 hour commute twice a week for close to two years, carrying my clothes and my books in a backpack. And I read omnivorously, compulsively, huge non-fiction books about God or Soviet Russia or Harry Truman, mixed in with Diana Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman and your books, Scalzi.

    I love the smell of books, to touch them physically. But damn. Those things are HEAVY when you’re hauling them across three states.

  102. I can’t see physical books becoming unavailable all that soon … one prerequisite for that will be agreement on and adoption of a single universal format for ebooks and readers. Many of us couldn’t be bothered with home video until the Beta/VHS conflict was finally settled, and other media, including audio (which imho still hasn’t been settled), have faced the same problem. Remember the old 45’s, which originally specifically required an RCA phonograph until they lost their battle to ban adaptors which permitted playing on *any* player capable of 45 rpm?

  103. Apologies if this has been addressed earlier in the thread, but if it’s the case that the message, the words, are the important thing here, and not how people read them…

    Why must I buy the words twice to read them in print and on my computer? I understand not wanting to offer a print version for free if someone buys a digital copy, but why not the reverse? Why not get the book in nook format at no charge if I’ve already bought it for the kkindle?

  104. I hope no one thinks I’m trolling here – its a legitimate question. The era of paying multiple times for the same work on different media is passing away, and i believe it ought to pass away.

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