Novelist Jonathan Franzen, who is winning great popularity lately for his books, recently indulged in a diatribe against e-books, spouting some of the same tired rhetoric that the paper panickers always seem to think is original to them. Paper is permanent and durable, Franzen writes. “The Great Gatsby was last updated in 1924. You don’t need it to be refreshed, do you?”
Funny thing, Jonathan—if it hadn’t been easily downloadable to my electronic device, I don’t think I would have bothered to seek out and read The Great Gatsby at all, and I would have missed out on a great reading experience.
Anyway, Franzen is a popular enough writer that even Barack Obama asked for an advance copy of his latest novel, so his comments got a lot of play in the tech press yesterday. (Less often reported were the more succinct (not to mention profane) comments of fellow e-book hater Maurice Sendak.) A number of others (such as Techdirt, Mashable, and John Scalzi) posted rebuttals.
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.
Really, if it weren’t for Franzen’s reputation, nobody would care about what he had to say. It’s just more of the same old reactionary reactions to a changing world, usually espoused by concerned members of the older generation. (On a related note, Neil Young thinks that CDs and MP3s should be ditched in favor of better-sounding vinyl, though he does at least get some points for recognizing that “Piracy is the new radio. That’s how music gets around.”)
But one thing that amused me was that Franzen was glad he wouldn’t be around to see the world in 50 years when e-books will have taken over. I think he’s counting his blessings prematurely—at the rate of change going on right now, I’d say the publishing industry will probably be all but unrecognizable in less than ten.