Dumb quote of the day--literary Luddite edition

>> Thursday, February 02, 2012

"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."

...

"Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m 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’s reassuring.

"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."
-Jonathan Franzen, as quoted by Anita Singh,
"Jonathan Franzen: e-books are damaging society",
The Telegraph, February 2nd, 2012


I think my favorite part of Franzen's commentary is right there in the first bit: evidently he's never had the dire experience of spilling a beverage on a book--or, worse yet, dropping it in the tub--and having all the ink run or the pages stuck together or the bindings warped, depending on the quality of all of the above components. I suppose books are mostly cheaper to replace if one gets completely drowned, though I'm also happy to say I've had my tablet survive splashings that would have utterly destroyed cheap print: water or soda beads up so nicely on the glass and is easily wiped away with delicate dabs of a napkin or paper towel, while the same miniscule amount of water on a pulp or book club edition might tragically turn finely-tuned prose into amoebic blobs stretching pseudopodia towards adjacent lines. I imagine a book is easier to replace if you drop it while in the bathtub--this is why I don't read my tablet while taking a soak, natch--but in technological terms, the hardcopy of Mr. Franzen's Freedom may not survive a dunking, either. I don't know if the rice trick has a chance of working on it, anyway.

The second thing Franzen's rant reminds me of, with his talk about changing words around and altering content and permanence, etc., is an old genre novel. No, not 1984 (if you want to count that one as a genre novel instead of a literary one) or Fahrenheit 451 (ditto) or anything like that dealing with the survival of books. I'm thinking about Stephen King's The Stand. You may or may not recall that King originally published his fourth novel in the 1970s ('78, to be exact) with all sorts of 1970s-ish cultural reference points, and then twelve years later he replaced it with a new edition--The Stand: The Complete And Uncut Edition--which not only added back a bunch of deleted scenes, but also (in a kind of Lucasian touch) haphazardly updated a lot of the cultural references to the 1980s. (This wasn't the first time the text had changed, actually: the 1980 paperback edition kept the 1970s cultural touchstones but advanced dates in the novel to keep the book in a near-future setting.)

I don't know how you felt about it if you read either or both editions, but I ended up feeling the same kind of letdown I later felt seeing the "Special Edition" of Star Wars in the theatre: the original was a piece of work I treasured, while the new version introduced all sorts of things I didn't want or need and the "updates" and "restorations" were frequently distracting or detracting (most notorious example in Star Wars, of course: Han shooting first). In both instances, putting back material that had originally been excised for length and pacing resulted in the work becoming oddly plodding and feeling padded in ways it just simply hadn't been in the original. And in both cases, good luck finding the originals if you want them; you might still be able to snag them on eBay or at a used book or video store, but officially-speaking, the original versions just don't exist anymore.

I think it's obvious that I'm mentioning this because I have no idea what Franzen is talking about when he prattles about permanence. Well, no, that isn't right at all: I know exactly what he's talking about, it's just that he's being wrong and stupid about it. Sort of. I mean, yes, there was that ridiculous incident a year-and-a-half ago where Amazon virtually repossessed illegal copies of 1984 and Animal Farm, sure; if you bought a cheap copy of Orwell while you were down in Australia, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt isn't going to break into your home and take it from you, though I have absolutely no idea whether it can be seized at the border as contraband when you attempt to enter the country with it. I think I might be digressing a little. The point is that Franzen seems to think that a book kept as a digital file is necessarily less permanent than the same book as pieces of dead trees and animals, although multiple files safely backed-up may be just as permanent in the sense Franzen means. At the same time, if you need to replace your old first edition of The Stand (and that's what you get for reading in the tub), and think you can just run down to your favorite brick-and-mortar, well, you can't; new editions of old books are just as vulnerable and impermanent in the sense Franzen means as any digital copy maintained on Amazon's servers and copied to your local device via Whispersync.

Whatever. Franzen also wants to take a drive-by shot at what I guess he'd call "unserious readers", as opposed to "serious readers" who read exactly the way he does. Look, he's completely entitled to enjoy books in whatever fashion he wants to, but I'm not sure where he gets off dissing anybody else in the world. For some of us, a book is like any other tool or artifact, and you use the right one for the job. In my case, that means a nice, comfy bound book for reading in the tub, and a conveniently downloaded e-book when I'm out or on the go. I don't think I'm enjoying David Foster Wallace's The Pale King any more or less because I have a hardback copy, and I'd almost say the same for John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in Kindle edition, but for the fact that being able to search the text for character names did make le Carré's twisty plot a bit more manageable, especially as the book accelerated into its endgame.

And this is actually where I find myself hesitating, reluctant to cross a threshold with my own, I don't know, not quite Luddism, but my own clinging to habits. I adore books as objects, absolutely, and couldn't live in a home without shelves and shelves of them going down the walls. But in terms of quote-unquote "serious reading", I think I might be edging towards the digital. There's space, for one thing, since I basically refuse to get rid of old books and may run out of room. There's the convenience factor in being able to carry a vast number of books in my pocket and instantly buy new ones anywhere there's an open wireless point or tolerable cellular service. And there's also nice little bits like being able to turn the lights out so somebody can sleep next to me, while still being able to read a little before I fall asleep because the LCD backlight doesn't bother her (or she's sweet enough to say it doesn't, though I'll take her snores as corroboration). You can't read it in the tub, or at least that could be expensive. But everywhere else, good grief, it is so goddamn practical.

And there's one more thing re: permanence, in the Frazenian sense of it: I don't have it listed in the sidebar, here, but the e-book I'm currently reading is an old collection, now in the public domain, of Algernon Blackwood stories that I downloaded for free. I couldn't tell you offhand if the collection is still in physical print or not, but in any event it's there on Amazon's servers for free and you can download as many copies as you want and sync them between as many devices as you want, and the space the original file occupies--a few nanometers of ferrous oxide on a harddrive on an Amazon server farm somewhere, or a similarly minute clot of charged specs on an SD drive in my tablet or cell phone--is so negligible as to not even be worth describing unless you want to talk about just how amazing it is that a whole entire book can be kept in a physical space so miniscule that it's functionally equivalent to nowhere. And the upshot of this is that these Algernon Blackwood stories will now exist as long as there's a power grid, i.e. pretty much as long as there's a civilization of human beings capable of reading them. These stories won't ever be notched and sloughed off to outlet stores because they take up too much space in a warehouse, only to be returned and pulped because they took up too much space on a store shelf or in a big basket; they have an uncanny virtual permanence now, oddly like the ghostly undead that are their subject. Franzen forgets, perhaps, that the Great Library at Alexandria, one of the first human attempts to compile all human words in one accessible location, was burned to the ground by fools and much that was inscribed on the permanent, tangible media of ink and paper forever lost; then he's disdainful of a medium that could allow all human words to be compiled in all accessible locations and in a fashion such that they are duplicated and backed up so many times that losing them is utterly impossible (short of an actual apocalypse ending human life and civilization that would put a pretty thorough end to "serious readers", too, obviously).

The Great Library in my pocket? There's a staggering thought, no?





(H/t Slate.)



7 comments:

Jeri Thursday, February 2, 2012 at 6:36:00 PM EST  

I'm with Franzen on this one, but probably not for the same reasons. I don't know why I absolutely refuse to go digital when it comes to books. In particular, for books that I want to own and keep I can't imagine not having the physical, bound book with paper pages to leaf through.

But even with books I'm just reading for enjoyment and don't particularly want to own, and that's the vast majority of my reading, I will still traipse to the library to make my selections or grab them at a bookstore and pass them along when I'm done with them.

It may have something to do with the different ways people read. When I read I'm not doing anything else. I sit in my favorite chair and may have a cuppa joe to slurp, and I read. I'm not good at reading-in-snatches (get your mind out of the gutter), three pages today, a couple more tomorrow, a chapter a week from now, etc.; I usually finish a book in two or three sittings. And I don't usually have more than one, rarely two, books going at the same time.

But your point about durability of ebooks compared with bound books is true, true, true. I cringe when I get books from the library and they have Cheetos fingerprints on the pages or a chunk of some unknown sticky substance ::shudder: on the pages. I'm not white-glove careful with my bound books, but I'm sure I'd be much more relaxed with a Kindle.

Warner Friday, February 3, 2012 at 8:44:00 AM EST  

Jeri, up to a month ago I would have agreed with you. My wife and I are planning a long trip and the weight of books we would need to haul would be mind boggling. So I bought her a Kindle and myself a Nook (I'm the techie and the Nook is a Tablet). I'm hooked.

Most of my Heinlein is falling to pieces (books with cover prices of 35 cents tend to do that), he will get replaced with e-books.

The down side is I just paid $2.99 for the complete works of Shakespeare and the editing is dreadful, words are left out.

Some books will continue to be purchased in print, even when there is a choice. E-book cook books don't strike me as a good idea, I tend to be messy and my wife can turn a neat kitchen into a total disaster area (the food is worth it). However I suspect that most of my book purchase will be electronic if that is an option in the future.

timb111 Friday, February 3, 2012 at 11:34:00 AM EST  

I read in the tub with my kindle in clear ziploc bag. Works great. Try doing that with a bound book.

I no longer buy bound fiction books. On the other hand my Tufte books on design would be useless on any kind of e-reader. Particularly the one with pop-up pages and other neat effects.

I have real books for my grandchildren. I think they need to touch them, turn their pages, scribble in them and chew on them so they can develop a full visceral feel for reading. When they're old enough to handle an e-reader and they're used to building an imaginary world while reading, they'll enjoy reading all the more.

Jeri Friday, February 3, 2012 at 11:53:00 AM EST  

What's with you guys and baths?!? I shower, and I defy you to find a way to read anything while trying desperately to not run out of hot water, and flinging soap and water all over.

Warner, you have a good point. I'm sure there are circumstances where I'd love a Kindle but I just haven't come across them yet. That said, I'm going to show my complete gadget ignorance and ask a question: can the ebooks that you buy for your Kindle or Nook also just be downloaded to a laptop? Never mind, I just Googled it. If I was going to start buying ebooks I'd probably just invest in a small laptop since I don't have one.

Phiala Friday, February 3, 2012 at 12:36:00 PM EST  

As far as I'm concerned, the book is the content, and the means of presentation is whatever is most appropriate to the content and the circumstance.

Tufte? Print editions (which he had self-published so they'd be just so).

Tub reading? Paper.

Library books: paper or electronic, my library has both, and I can download ebooks from home.

New fiction: mostly electronic at this point: portability, shelf space, etc. Also, I don't have a good local bookstore. The instant gratification factor is huge, too.

Also, many authors I admire are epubbing their backlist: stuff that's been unavailable for a long time. Check out Book View Cafe, for example. This is wonderful, and I can support good writers.

Jeri, the reading experience is much better on a tablet or e-reader than it is on even a netbook. I dislike reading stuff on the laptop, even though I do a lot of reading on the LCD-screen Nook.

Warner, I take the netbook in the kitchen to look up recipes all the time. I have indeed spilled flour in it, but fortunately to no ill effect. It also plays music, a wonderful side effect. I don't use the Nook in the kitchen: touch screen is less appropriate than being able to hit the space bar with my elbow to page down.

I also agree with Eric on the delight of being able to read in poorly-lit conditions without bothering others or finding a light.

I tend to be very pragmatic about technology: use the tool that best fits your needs. Sometimes that's one thing, sometimes another.

Nick from the O.C.,  Friday, February 3, 2012 at 12:57:00 PM EST  

I've had a Kindle for more than a year now. I use it infrequently. It's best (for me) for the auto-downloads of magazines, but not su much for other reading. For one thing, the flight attendants make me turn it off at times when I would much rather be reading.

I just like books. Hardcovers, paperbacks, I don't care. I'm not a snob about it. It's just how I roll. The problem is that I, like Eric, do not get rid of books that I have enjoyed, and thus have run out of bookshelf storage space. All my precious treasures have been boxed-up and banished to the garage. By my wife. Who bought me the Kindle. I'm told there's some sort of connection there.

When one has had one's precious treasures banished to the garage, it is important to make sure they are boxed in plastic, not cardboard. I learned this lesson too late. Fucking termites.

Eric Friday, February 3, 2012 at 1:55:00 PM EST  

Jeri, two things. First, I usually shower, yeah, but sometimes you've had a bad day at work (for instance) and need a soak. Fill the tub with hot water while you get yourself a "beverage", turn on the jets if you have them, and let the day's psychic toxicity leech out of you while you enjoy a good read (in a plastic baggie or not).

Second: you've probably answered this for yourself already with The Google, but yeah, you can read e-books on a laptop or netbook. I agree with Phiala about the quality of reading experience on an e-reader or a tablet with a decent screen, but there's also a larger point here (missed by Franzen et al.) that this is part of the glorious convenience of e-books. The other night I was having dinner by myself, so I opened up Amazon's Kindle Cloud Reader on my laptop while I ate, and it automatically synced their copy of a free Algernon Blackwood collection I was reading with the Kindle copy on my tablet; I finished dinner before I finished the short story, so I put my plate away and resumed reading on the tablet copy (there was, to be honest, a small bug in the sync at that point so I had to manually advance my place by a few pages, but no big deal).

The point I'm trying to illustrate, obviously, is that the ability to have multiple copies of the same book on various kinds of devices means that you can switch to what you have without having an extra object--paper book or electronic device--to stow. I have Kindle and Nook software installed on my cellphone, too, not because the cellphone is a great reading experience (it's not terrible, either), but because anywhere I have my phone, I have the same things I might be reading on the tablet. And you can replace device names freely: I have my laptop, I have the books I have on my phone, I have my netbook, I have the books I have on the tablet, etc. As opposed to hardback + phone or hardback + laptop, etc.

Amazon makes syncing a mostly-sweet, unobtrusive and silent deal (almost like... a whisper). Not sure how well any automatic syncing works out on the Nook or other formats, but it's not necessarily a big deal to download a public domain work, place it in a Dropbox folder, and then have access to it on your phone, tablet, netbook and laptop, syncing them manually. (I know of whence I speak.)

In short (too late!), you don't necessarily have to choose a device, Jeri, and that's the brilliant thing these days: yes, if you get a dedicated reader, there may be format-war issues, but aside from that, choosing to get a Nook doesn't mean you can't read the same books on your phone or your ginormous Alienware desktop you normally do your raids on. And installing Nook on your phone or tablet won't keep you from installing Kindle or eReader.

I'd also like to be clear for everyone that my position is like Phiala's: it's about the tool for the job. Ebooks are a delightful tool, but that doesn't mean they're perfect for everything. (In fact, an ironic thing about Franzen's position is that a family of books e-readers are poorly suited for replacing are picture books, ranging from children's picture books to bignormous coffee table collections of glossy photographs.) There absolutely are books whose bookishness is a part of the experience (an e-book version of Danielewski's House Of Leaves seems like it would be completely and totally beside the point). And there are situations where the presentation may not matter but an e-book is nonetheless the wrong tool (or a print book is). What makes Franzen's comments worthy of "dumb quote" status is his categorical dismissal of a particular kind of tool and the spurious reasons he offers as justification. If he'd just said, "Y'know, I get why people buy e-books, I just can't get used to the screens and I love the dusty smell of old paper," instead of suggesting it's his way or the wrong way, he wouldn't have merited the post.

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