Are e-books a “radical” threat to society? Jonathan Franzen said as much at his first press conference over the weekend at the Hay Festival, in Cartagena, Columbia. “For serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience,” said the author of Freedom and The Corrections. “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.”
Having been driven away from Kindle by the intrusive and annoying “popular highlights” feature, I have to agree. Yes, I know you can disable it, but the collective e-commentary on great works of literature feels like a violation. Hey, when I’m reading Anna Karenina, I want to sink into Tolstoy’s world, not be notified of that a committee of readers has highlighted a certain phrase. It’s not a work memo.
Franzen went on to argue that doing away with this sense of permanence is harmful to individuals and, thus, to society as a whole. “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.”
In just a few sentences, he managed to indight e-books for the ultimate demise of the civilized world—quite the verbal sally from someone not known to mince words. Oprah-Book-Club-gate comes to mind.
E-books causing the downfall of civilization? Hmm. I thought Angry Birds was doing that. Still, Franzen’s comments struck a chord with me. I’ve always preferred physical books, and now I’m thinking that this sense of permanence—this feeling that you are holding your own, perfect piece of art—may be why. “Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it,” said Franzen. “They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper.”
It’s the interaction with this ink and paper that makes my reading experience. I love the smell of books and the stiffness of the binding that softens as you read along. I like to ruffle the corners of the pages, and I get a real satisfaction as I turn them. I run my fingers across the dust jacket, daydreaming about the design and the writing within. Despite the warning, I often buy books just for their covers.
But, no. I don’t think this makes me a more serious reader than those who are glued to their screens. Some of my bookwormiest friends are strictly e-readers. Kathleen, who runs our book club and goes through books like they are episodes of 24, was an early e-dopter. Even before Kindle, Nook, iPhone, or Google Books, Kathleen would surf arcane online collections of universities or libraries to download public-domain works. Sometimes she reads onscreen, and sometimes she prints out pages, but I think that digital ownership adds to her connection with the material. Lest anyone confuse speed with lack of seriousness, Kathleen does not read book candy (unlike me). She favors literary fiction: Ian McEwen, Philip Roth (one of her favorites), and most recently, Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending, the Booker Prize winner. However someone ‘gets their read on’ works for me. It just saddens me (for them) when they don’t read at all.
Still, Franzen’s provocative comments keep turning in my head: the sense of permanence and the dangers of impermanence. It’s not just e-books, but also smartphones, tablets, laptops, video games, picture-in-picture TV screens (one show isn’t enough?) and on-demand programming—a constant stream of instant gratification. Anticipation has been largely replaced by impatience. Is it any wonder that so many of us have ADD?
“The combination of technology and capitalism has given us a world that really feels out of control,” said Franzen. He then argued that technology has empowered the bankers over elected politicians. “We are hostage to that because we like our iPhones.”
Oops, guilty. I love my iPhone and my iPad. The first thing I did was launch the iBooks app with its fun “bookshelf” graphic. My first download: The Lyrical Ballads. It’s a digital reproduction of the original 1798 edition, just as it appeared to Wordsworth and Coleridge. Well, almost. I then downloaded the books of all three Brontës, and of course, all of Jane Austen. I just love having a library in my pocket wherever I go. Ultimately though, I find the e-read is not as rewarding as the printed page.
We defenders of said page got an alarming jolt last May, when Amazon announced they were selling more e-books than bound copies. This week, we learned that Barnes & Noble is struggling to survive. Who would have thought we’d be rooting for Barnes & Noble? It does feel like the inexorable march towards an all-digital dystopia.
Yes, I do despair over about the future of books and bookstores. It’s hard not to when you consider how quickly the music industry collapsed. Does anyone buy CD’s anymore? I fear that one day I will become the biblio version of a vinyl geek, scouring the back alleys of Berlin or Hay-on-Wye for shops that actually sell old-school, printed books. Perhaps Franzen is right. For me, a bookless world would be indeed a giant leap backwards for civilization, or perhaps, a sign of Apocalypse.