Jonathan Franzen: E-readers are 'damaging to society'(Read article summary)
Jonathan Franzen, the author of 'Freedom' and 'The Corrections,' calls e-readers incompatible with 'responsible self-government.'
Jonathan Franzen doesn‚Äôt want you to read his bestsellers on e-readers. The acclaimed novelist of ‚ÄúFreedom‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúThe Corrections‚ÄĚ launched a tirade against e-books at a recent literary event, calling them ‚Äúnot for serious readers‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúdamaging to society.‚ÄĚ
Franzen was speaking at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, when he sounded his battle cry against e-readers, harsh shots at technology now heard ‚Äėround the book world.¬†
‚ÄúThe technology I like is the American paperback edition of ‚ÄėFreedom,‚Äô‚ÄĚ Franzen said at the Festival. ‚ÄúI can spill water on it and it would still work! So it's pretty good technology. And what‚Äôs more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It‚Äôs a bad business model,‚ÄĚ said the novelist who famously cuts off all connection to the Internet when he writes.
‚ÄúI 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‚Äôt change.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúWill there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don‚Äôt have a crystal ball.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúBut I do fear that it‚Äôs going to be very hard to make the world work if there‚Äôs no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.‚ÄĚ
Franzen isn‚Äôt the first to come out against e-books, but he may be the first to have attacked them so damningly, as incompatible with justice or responsible self-government. He went on, explaining that he felt reassured by paper books‚Äô permanence and distrusted the constant possibility of change in an e-book.
‚ÄúMaybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do,‚ÄĚ Franzen said at the event. ‚ÄúWhen I read a book, I‚Äôm handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing - that‚Äôs reassuring.‚ÄĚ¬†
‚ÄúSomeone 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‚Äôs just not permanent enough.‚ÄĚ¬†
This isn‚Äôt the first time Franzen has spoken out against technology, notes the UK‚Äôs Guardian. He‚Äôs known for sealing off his computer‚Äôs ethernet port to prevent himself from connecting to the Internet while he writes, asserting ‚Äúit‚Äôs doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.‚ÄĚ
He seems to have injected that critique of technology in ‚ÄúFreedom,‚ÄĚ too, voiced by character Walter Berglund. ‚ÄúThis was what was keeping me awake at night,‚ÄĚ Walter says in the novel. ‚ÄúThis fragmentation. Because it‚Äôs the same problem everywhere. It‚Äôs like the Internet, or cable TV ‚Äď there‚Äôs never any center, there‚Äôs no communal agreement, there‚Äôs just a trillion bits of distracting noise‚Ä¶All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things, are dying off.‚ÄĚ
Not surprisingly, his comments have elicited pushback.
Responding to his complaint that ‚ÄúA screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around,‚ÄĚ the UK Telegraph‚Äôs Tom Chivers writes, ‚ÄúDoes he think that e-publishers will surreptitiously edit classic works? Perhaps sprinkle Beowulf with Starbucks adverts, or weave party political messages subtly into the text of Jane Eyre? In all honesty, I suspect that this is an example of a very clever man using his considerable brainpower to dress up unconscious prejudice in what sounds like reasoned argument. Mr Franzen doesn't like e-books; he prefers reading books. But he can't simply say as much, so he wraps it in a layer of talk about 'permanence' and 'responsible self-government'.‚ÄĚ¬†
We tend to agree with Chivers. Franzen seems to be masquerading his own relative Luddism by disparaging technology and those who use it, including many serious bibliophiles, as ‚Äúdamaging‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúnot serious.‚ÄĚ
What do you think? Does Franzen have a point?
Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.