jonathan-franzenNovelist 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.

Scalzi writes:

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.


  1. As I commented on MobileRead, I think Franzen has a point and that it is being missed. Scalzi focuses on the physical property of the paerback and then dismisses Franzen. I think Franzen has a valid point and it is NOT on the literal physicality of the book. Rather it is on the loss of a permanent record of the published book. Because ebooks are so easily modified — consider who easy it is for an ebooker to download an ebook, get annoyed by misspellings, and strip the DRM and use a program like Sigil to make corrections — no one will be able to look back 100 years from now and identify the original as provided by the author. When we read an ebook version of the Great Gatsby, we can look at the original book as published and compare the two to see what changes have been made by the digitizer.

    I agree that for most books, including Scalzi’s books, it probably doesn’t matter, but it isn’t always easy to tell which book will be the next To Kill a Mockingbird until years after publication and with an ebook it will be difficult to know whether it is now a classic because of the original author’s work or because of some interloper who “fixed” the book and released it on the Internet.

  2. It was — and still may be — standard practice in British children’s book publishing to ‘update’ popular books with reference to current trends and events; thus the content of a particular Jennings book by Anthony Buckeridge, for instance, varies according to which edition you buy. Books are permanent? Hmm..

  3. Textbooks usually get updates, so what’s wrong with it?
    And lately there was a lot of fuss about ‘Huckleberry Finn’ being re edited to make it political correct in its newly printed edition. And Mark Twain is one of the better known authors all over the world. The reason used was to keep it updated. And it is a classic!
    Now ebooks are bad because you can have different editions?

  4. I don’t understand why anyone would want to change the text in an e-book or that they should be allowed to. Isn’t there something to do with copyright? Personally, as the owner of an online bookshop I’m hoping that books in all formats will be around for years to come. We’re all entitled to our opinions about whether or not the ebook is better than the printed book but I don’t see why they can’t exist successfully alongside each other – thereby giving competition and more importantly, choice!

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