Jonathan Franzen: e-books are damaging society
Jonathan Franzen has launched a passionate defence of the printed book, warning that our desire for the instant gratification of e-books is damaging for society.
By Anita Singh
29 Jan 2012
The author of Freedom and The Corrections, regarded as one of America’s greatest living novelists, said consumers had been conned into thinking that they need the latest technology.
“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.
“Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball.
“But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”
Speaking at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, Franzen argued that e-books, such as Amazon’s Kindle, can never have the magic of the printed page.
He said: “The Great Gatsby was last updated in 1924. You don’t need it to be refreshed, do you?
“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.”
Franzen said he took comfort from knowing he will not be here in 50 years’ time to find out if books have become obsolete.
“I’m amused by how intent people are on making human beings immortal or at least extremely long-lived,” he joked.
“One of the consolations of dying is that [you think], ‘Well, that won’t have to be my problem’. Seriously, 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.”
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