Books Vs Words

Jonathan Franzen has weighed in on the rise of e-readers. He doesn’t like them (predictably) and he fears the loss of permanence in our lives. (You can read the story here). Franzen seems to get himself in trouble every time he opens his mouth, or at least to annoy people and I think it has nothing to do with his success. (I have always wondered what would have happened to his career had he a) graciously accepted Oprah’s invitation in the first place or b) she had never chosen The Corrections for her book club.) Well, it is partly due to his success but not entirely.

What if he’s just a dink? A dinky old fashioned dinosaur. So what if his books sell millions of copies? His being a dink has nothing to do with his talents as a writer. When I read about his views on e-readers I had this thought: Jonathan Franzen has become the new Malcolm Gladwell of stupid opinions. Gladwell has made a lot of money by writing very well – and intelligently – about some very obvious things. At least that’s my take on him. And now, here’s Franzen, confusing his work – the words and story – with an object, a delivery system. That’s what a book is.

I love books. Don’t get me wrong. Love may not be strong enough to describe my feelings for them. And I have found that I can’t read fiction in e-form. Don’t ask me why. I need the pleasure of the physical book to aid and abet my reading experience. But non-fiction? No problem. I now prefer my iPad. I love the feel of magazines but reading one on my iPad is no problem. It feels less lush to me, sure, but that’s me. Print is easy luxury. ┬áThe convenience of the iPad (or any e-reader but to tell the truth, all the other ones feel flimsy to me – and the Kobo sucks; it feels like something out of a Cracker Jacks box) might trump that luxury but it doesn’t make it “better.”

I’m not a nostalgic person. But I still miss albums. I decry the loss of sonic quality everyone accepts because of the iPod and those dreadful earbuds. New technology doesn’t necessarily signal an improvement. Sometimes, as in the case of digital music, we decided to sacrifice quality for convenience. That’s an interesting trade-off but one that didn’t need to be made. There is an aspect to Franzen’s argument I sympathize with. He believes that “consumers had been conned into thinking that they need the latest technology.” There’s an amount of truth to that. We all want the latest stuff without thinking whether or not the new stuff advances our lives in any way. But in the case of e-readers in general, I do think we’re seeing a democratization of the reading experience – even if e-readers are expensive (for now). And I think the amount being read by all people is going up. Even as we hurtle toward a “Post Literate Age” – which is exactly what Franzen fears most.

Many people have made the mistake of comparing the work to the delivery system. A book is a beautiful and near perfect object. But in the end, does its beauty do anything to the words printed on it? And does the “permanence” of a book have no digital counterpart? Again, I would disagree. But then again, Franzen says a lot of things to disagree with. Lovely writer though.

Totally different topic: follow this. A year in the life of a small(ish) but hugely important publisher. Sort of a look to see how publishers (that aren’t multinationals) are faring today.

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