Jonathan Franzen on E-Books

Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom and The Corrections, expresses his thoughts on e-books:

The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it’s pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model.

I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change.

Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball.

But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.

I understand where Franzen is coming from, and I used to be in the same camp as he is now (i.e., I wouldn’t read any e-books). But ever since I finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs on my iPhone, I’ve become more warm toward reading books on digital devices (I have still yet to get a Kindle, however).

Franzen goes on:

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.

Yes, the concept of being reassured that the text hasn’t changed is wonderful. But he neglects dynamic titles that can be updated over the years (think introductions and forewords to texts). My feeling is that Franzen’s thoughts on e-books will become more malleable (i.e., sympathetic) in the next few years. It certainly takes time, as was the case with me.