American novelist Johnathan Franzen (author of Freedom and The Corrections) managed to upset a fair number of writers, publishers and fellow readers this morning, according to my Twitter feed—an article from Sunday's edition of The Telegraph outlined arguments Franzen made in a speech at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, about the damaging effects of e-books on the civilized world. In typical Franzen form, he managed to insult all readers in possession of e-book editions and he managed to turn paperback books into The One Reading Experience Worthy of His Work.
In essence, his arguments against e-books are as follows:
- If a reader spills water on a physical book (or p-book), that book will continue to function. If a reader spills water on an e-book (or its equivalent reading device, really), that unit could be irreparably damaged. P-book = Superior format.
- Where technological updates could render single e-books obsolete (think of those endless system updates), a p-book sitting on a bookshelf can always be accessed, even ten years into the future. Hence, capitalists want you to buy the e-book since, presumably, you will have to purchase your favourite books every few years.
- "Serious" readers want permanence. Ink on paper is permanent. E-books suggest indefinite new edits and updates can (and will…?) continue throughout the book's e-life. A lack of permanence means we will lose hold of our "system of justice" and "responsible self-government.” Therefore, e-books = ANARCHY. DOWN WITH CHANGE!
- Too much change will make readers want to kill themselves by their eightieth birthdays. Jonathan Franzen turns fifty-three this year.
- One of the reasons Jonathan Franzen loves Barack Obama as the American president relates to Obama's identity as
a fan of Franzen's book Freedoma Real Reader.
I hate that this article has brought Franzen's name to the forefront of literary news again, and I know I'm falling victim to his goading with this one. But I can't stand it when readers (or writers) bash new book formats with such weak arguments. I mean, I do agree with the concerns regarding technological updates—I knew a girl who had a first generation KOBO e-reader, and once the third generation unit had been released, she stopped receiving e-mail updates from the KOBO store because her unit was roughly two-years ancient. I know e-book retailers talk about The Cloud and how those purchased e-books exist out there, but what happens if the retailer's business goes bankrupt? And what happens if their business is purchased by a competitor? Now, I don't have an MBA or anything, but I'm pretty sure the annexing business doesn't want to cater to the needs of those customers who bought the now annexed and obsolete e-reader …
But, in regards to Franzen's statements about "serious" readers—well, he can just cliff himself for that one. How can one be more dedicated to reading if one buys a paperback edition? Wouldn't paperback readers be inferior to hardcover readers, if we're going to entertain Franzen's delusions for a moment? And how is spilled ink more valuable than the XML data and XSL products that now format written documents for p-book printers and for their e-book counterparts? No, actually, I think the Most Serious of Serious Readers would want their books handwritten—in blood. Yeah, that would enhance the permanence of the book, eh? That should ward of those anarchistic e-books. Definitely. Why did no one think of this earlier…?
It's difficult for me to get a hate on for e-books when A) they're almost half the cost of those precious paperbacks Franzen refers to, and B) e-readers are far more portable than their p-book counterparts (I'm looking at you, George R.R. Martin and Haruki Murakami…and numerous others). Also, according to other commenters such as CBC News, e-books are eliminating the embarrassment associated with buying Harlequins and erotica collections, which are helping the genre to thrive despite our economic troubles. (Maybe this is the anarchy Franzen's getting ruffled about?)
That being said, I still buy my favourite works in a p-book format, and the library offers a great selection of p-books for us poor readers to borrow. But to value a reader based on her format of choice strikes me as crazy talk—people reading in ANY format bring value to the work. They're the ones who keep publishing relevant and keep book conversations alive. Even if we all ended up reading e-books in the future, isn't the important part of that equation the fact that we'll still be reading?
I know I'm biased in calling this, but Moffatt: 1 | Franzen: Ridiculous.