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.