By Steve Weddle
Speaking at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, [Jonathan] Franzen argued that e-books, such as Amazon’s Kindle, can never have the magic of the printed page. -- from the UK Telegraph
Best-selling author Jonathan Franzen has been rather silly in his attack on ebooks. Let's take a look at his argument, with his points from the Telegraph article.
“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.”
You ever try to read a page you’ve spilled water on? I have. Doesn’t usually work.
As with most of his complaints, Mr. Franzen seems confused about how ebooks work. Yes, it’s called an “e-book,” and I think I understand part of where Mr. Franzen’s confusion comes from. He seems to be under the impression the book itself will “short out,” much as his cassette player would if doused with a can of New Coke.
If I spilled water on my Kindle and it stopped working, I could still read my book. I could read the file on my computer. On my phone. On my wife’s Kindle. When my new Kindle arrives in a day, I could pick up where I left off. The bookmarks and notes, like the ebook itself, exist on my local device, sure. But they also exist on Amazon’s servers and on any other device I’ve loaded them onto.
Mr. Franzen says that he loves the “American paperback edition of FREEDOM.” Leave that out in the rain and you can’t read the book. Leave your Kindle or Nook out in the rain and you still can. The book isn’t ruined at all.
Sure, a Kindle is expensive – the same as about two hardbacks of Franzen’s FREEDOM. Don’t leave it out in the rain.
“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.”
I, too, am a “serious reader.” I have a very serious chair in the library of my home. I sit in the chair, listening to Dvorak and drinking my dark coffee from my serious Keurig brewer. And I have checked the files loaded on my Kindle. I have looked at the PDF of this Telegraph article every five minutes for the past two hours.
So far, the file has not changed. If the files on Mr. Franzen’s ereader have been changing themselves, I would suggest he return the reader to Amazon. They have fantastic customer service. In fact, they’re quite serious about it.
“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.”
Yes, books can change, I suppose. But this is not simply a paper vs. screen issue. In 2010, for example, 80,000 copies of a book called FREEDOM by a Mr. J. Franzen were pulped because of numerous errors. Sometimes, these things happen. Sometimes printing the book on paper might cause problems.
The publishers have made the rare decision to pulp the remaining books at a cost of tens of thousands of pounds. A spokesman for Fourth Estate, the HarperCollins imprint that publishes Franzen in Britain, said: 'The error was minor - the odd word, spelling, punctuation, that sort of thing. 'Jonathan has spent 10 years writing this book, so obviously he wants every word to be as it was when he left his computer. But he understands that it's just one of those things.' -- from UK Mail
Consider the logistics of pulping 80,000 books. Consider the tens of thousands of pounds in cost. Then consider updating the file on your Kindle or Nook with the corrected file.
“The Great Gatsby was last updated in 1924. You don’t need it to be refreshed, do you?”
No. I do not. I wonder what copy of THE GREAT GATSBY Mr. Franzen has downloaded and read. Perhaps he stumbled into one of those mash-ups. I can understand there'd be a problem if someone had accidentally purchased one of those Jane Austen fighting the werewolf books. GATSBY AND GHOULS, perhaps.
As I mentioned earlier, you can easily return the ebook to Amazon. In fact, as soon as you purchase an ebook on your device, a message that allows you to either immediately read the book or immediately cancel the book appears.
Perhaps it is unfair to ask Mr. Franzen to be an expert on technology. As the article in the Telegraph notes, Franzen “famously cuts off all connection to the internet when he is writing.”
I admit that I have read as much of Mr. Franzen’s writing as he has of mine, which is none at all. Therefore, I can’t with confidence judge whether his self-exile has improved his prose. I am aware that he has sold millions of books, much as Nicholas Sparks and James Patterson have done. So he must be doing something that is working for him.
I am also aware that Mr. Franzen’s own books are available as ebooks, which seems an odd choice for someone who so dislikes them. Perhaps the opportunity for selling millions of books has some advantages.
Perhaps most telling in the Telegraph article is the closing section:
Critics have pointed to the absence of religion in Franzen’s novels and he explained: “I don’t believe in a God who’s sitting in some undisclosed location at a switchboard receiving and answering prayers.
Interesting that Mr. Franzen thinks that God communicates via a switchboard. Also interesting that Mr. Franzen’s comments were reported by a newspaper called the Telegraph.
Switchboards. Telegraphs. Rocket books. What’s more important to most readers is the story, not the delivery mechanism. A $10 pdf of Franzen’s writing is just as much his story as is that same pdf in a bound volume, stitched and trimmed and shipped for $30.
Whether people are reading their literature on Kindles or Nooks or paper or phones or rolled-up scrolls penned by priests, a “literature-crazed” person would do well to remember that the play’s the thing, not the stage.