Author Jonathan Franzen (Pic: http://us.macmillan.com/author/jonathanfranzen)
In calling ebooks “damaging to society” celebrated author Jonathan Franzen is making the classic mistake of confusing the carrier with the content.
"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,” Franzen has been quoted as saying at the Hay festival in Cartagena, Colombia.
At the core of Franzen’s grouse is that ebooks do not seem permanent enough for him. “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.”
These are all valid responses of an imaginative writer except that they are not because ebooks are a sort of PDF files that cannot be altered by the reader, nor can they be erased by rubbing across the touchscreen. I understand that Franzen is not being literal but literary when he says all that but still it is important to point out the distinction. Ebooks are as permanent as anything else on this planet is, meaning they are impermanent.
More than anything else I cannot comprehend Franzen’s objection to ebooks on the ground that they are alterable. He probably means that unlike paper books, which once set in cold print, will remain as they are until the elements destroy them, ebooks are vulnerable. If his concern is that content might be lost or changed, I think it is unfounded.
Perhaps Franzen’s comments stem from his overall wariness about technology. The Guardian says that the author seals his computer’s ethernet port to prevent himself from accessing the internet when he is in the midst of his writing. That’s a charming little quirk but he can try something simpler like taking the ethernet cable off or, better still, not going online. Having an internet connection does not make it mandatory for people to go and stay online.
I have never quite understood the critics of technology because anything anyone does after being born—not to mention even while being born—is a result of some technology or another. The fact that Franzen’s damning disapproval of a form of technology got disseminated so quickly and became so widespread, something I am sure he approves of, is entirely a result of the very technology he may find damaging. Ironic, is it not?
Ebooks are merely a method of distribution on various devices. In and of themselves they control nothing. It is still the author and the editor and the publisher who call the shots. As for permanence, what’s that?