Monday, 30 January 2012

Jonathan Franzen, Kindles and Paperbacks

Reading damages society. That’s another way of saying that e-books damage society. This was the headline in today’s Telegraph online: “Jonathan Franzen: e-books are damaging society”. Franzen isn’t actually quoted as saying this in the article, but what he is quoted as saying is enough to provoke a backlash:

“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,” said Franzen, who famously cuts off all connection to the internet when he is writing. “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.

If you spilt water on your paperback, the ink might run (depending on the quality of the paperback). If it didn’t run, then it could start to fade. If your Kindle was damaged and had to be replaced, you wouldn’t lose your books because they’d be backed up electronically (on your Amazon account, for example). Still, I don’t think it’s helpful to pit e-books, hardbacks and paperbacks against one another, with one format emerging as the winner. They can compliment each other.

Franzen’s suggestion that e-books aren’t for “serious readers” isn’t really thought through. A student on her way to the library might want to read a novel on the bus and e-readers are small, fairly light to carry and take up hardly any space in a bag. For people who don’t have enough room in their home for a library, e-readers are a form of storage space. And there’s no need to lug the Oxford English Dictionary around with you either because the Kindle comes with a copy. If you wanted to know the meaning of a word, you just need to click on it with the cursor and the definition appears in the margin. Kindles are practical.

“Franzen said he took comfort from knowing he will not be here in 50 years’ time to find out if books have become obsolete… ‘Seriously,’ (he said) ‘the world is changing so quickly that if you had any more than 80 years of change I don’t see how you could stand it psychologically.’”

If Franzen felt like getting away from it all on a remote island, he might want to think about slipping a Kindle into his backpack - provided there's electricity on the island, of course.

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