Musings on the Wild World of Writing & Editing

Fanning the Flames

I recently read an article about Jonathan Franzen claiming that e-books are damaging society (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/hay-festival/9047981/Jonathan-Franzen-e-books-are-damaging-society.html and http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2012/01/30/jonathan_franzen_ebooks_are_not_for_serious_readers_.html). Franzen asserts that e-books are impermanent and too open to alteration and change. He enjoys the durable quality of books, that if you spill water on a book it’s still readable (usually) and that most of the things in our lives today are so fluid that we need an unchanging medium. The ability to alter an e-book concerns Franzen, and he contends that “serious readers” aren’t satisfied with the malleable and temporal nature of the e-book; serious readers are enjoying a specific text in a specific time and place that was meant to be printed in ink, not read on a screen.

I’m probably allowed to see myself as a serious reader, and I have a Kindle, so I take a little offense to Franzen. I have to make a concession to Franzen: he sold three million copies of his first book, so I’m going to give him his due. A man of his skill is allowed some latitude in making such proclamations, and his expertise makes him somewhat of an authority on the subject. In short, he’s a serious reader and writer, so I’m not going to question his personal opinion.

But I am going to take issue with his blanket generalization that all serious readers are dissatisfied with the e-readers. I read both on my Kindle and print books. Each have their merits and their drawbacks. I received my Kindle as a Christmas present back in 2009. I love my Kindle; it’s light, cute, and portable. For someone with so many books, I like knowing that when I pack my bag to travel (which I do quite often), I’m not going to be weighted down by several books. Writers who do serious amounts of research for their books such as Eula Biss and Amy Tan enjoy the iPad and Kindle, because they can travel with massive amounts of books and articles on a single lightweight device. As a CNF writer, I do a fair amount of research for my essays, and sometimes I just can’t keep all the necessary materials with me.

When I told my friend that I received a Kindle for Christmas, she was temporarily incredulous. “You? A Kindle?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“Are you still going to buy books in print?”

“Of course. I’m not planning on switching exclusive to an e-reader.”

“Okay good. Because a writer like you just wouldn’t seem right without a lot of books in your home.”

I believe that no room is truly complete without a few books. I believe that books in printed form are beautiful, living things and holding them in our hands and reading them is to connect to the human experience.  Reading taps into the human story, the one story that encompasses what it means to be human and alive. Print books are important to preserving cultural heritage and staying connected to thousands of years of human history. From cuneiform to hieroglyphs to the alphabet, the written word is enduring, what links the past to our present.

And of course I believe we should still continue reading print books. We do miss something when we read from a screen and lose the interaction with the page. We sacrifice some of our relationship to the books, when we press a button instead of turning a page, when we highlight with a cursor rather than underline with a pen, when we set aside a book by flipping a switch rather than closing a cover. The physical connection between our hands and the printed book is delicate and precious. We should do what we can to preserve the magic of that feeling.

But at the same time, “serious readers” (I’m not even sure what that means) can still engage a text, even if it’s on a Kindle or a Nook or an iPad. One could even argue that serious readers benefit from the advent of the e-reader–they can buy books more quickly and more easily with less money. Browsing is easier online (although I do sometimes miss my frequent trips to the bookstore), and downloading a book happens almost instantaneously. Maybe we should have to work more to acquire a book, but I think breaking down the barriers between discovering a book and reading it is worth the transition.

Although I don’t know if I qualify as a “serious reader,” I think my attachment to books might put me into that category. I’m a writing major; I read both on my own and for school on a regular basis. I have a life-long love affair with words, so yeah I’d say I’m a serious reader. I do miss being able to loan out books I like; you can’t just say, “Here, take my Kindle for a few weeks and read this book.” But still, the Kindle is a way to read many books at once and not break your back in the process.

Franzen also talks about how those who e-publish don’t put the same painstaking effort into getting the words just right and making the language appear just so on the page. He believes e-publishing makes room also for “sprinkling” classic works with advertisements and liberal editing. Those who publish online won’t put as much thought and effort into correctly formatting and modifying a classic text for e-consumption. I’m not a publisher, and I don’t work with re-formatting print text to e-text, but blaming publishers for taking a classic and essentially perverting it for profit is unfair to the publisher and the consumer. And on the subject of classics–books should be accessible and enjoyed; I dislike classics worship as though they’re sacred and untouchable. The reason classics are classics is that they effectively tap into the human experience that I mentioned earlier. They can adapt with the times; they’re meaningful and applicable years later. Maybe they should be put into e-reader form so that they can continue to reach and affect future readers.

Plus, those who self e-publish view the work they’re publishing as their brain child, their opus. They will not skim over the details or cut corners for the sake of being on the Internet. Your credibility is on the line when you e-publish; lots of major errors put your reputation in jeopardy because your ethos as a writer is at stake. Franzen underestimates the dedication of those who self-publish online and the amount of effort and labor writers lovingly pour into their work.

So here’s what I have to say to Jonathan Franzen: make your own Luddite opinions on the e-reader revolution, but e-readers are probably here to stay. The publishing world is currently experiencing serious growing pains as it acclimates to this new reading environment. Speak for yourself, Jonathan Franzen, because the serious readers of the world remain dedicated, devoted, and faithful to the written word, no matter the format.

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Comments on: "Fanning the Flames" (1)

  1. marisaporter said:

    The “format” has changed often over the centuries. Scrolls – I wonder if they the scroll-makers were offended at books? How about when papyrus was replaced with cheap factory-made paper – was that an offense? How about when the printing press made COPIES (imagine – mass copies!) available to the masses with so much less labor – was that an offense? And how about the evolution from the typewriter to the computer?

    “…the serious readers of the world remain dedicated, devoted, and faithful to the written word, no matter the format.” (quoted from above)

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