In Which I Discuss Jonathan Franzen’s Remarks at Length

In Which I Discuss Jonathan Franzen's Remarks at Length

Speaking recently at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, American novelist, Jonathan Franzen, attacked what he identifies as the impermanence of ebooks.  His following remarks are what Andrew Sullivan recently dismissed as “Wieseltierian piffle,”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

 “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.”   

I’ve been following the debate over physical media and digital media for some time now.  And most of what I’ve come across usually boils down to “Digital media is easier, cheaper, and comes with endless possibilities,” vs. “*insert nostalgic rant here*”.

But there is so much more to be said on the issue, and here I think Franzen is actually getting to something a bit meatier.  Because certainly there are important differences between physical and digital.  Not just in how people experience either one, or the way in which they are used, but most importantly in the social, political, and economic systems which come inextricably attached to either one.

And that’s where I think the idea of the book, of a material volume bound together, discrete and permanent, destroyable but unalterable, is not given enough credit.  While it may be hyperbolic, I don’t think it would be incorrect to argue that the book is responsible for a specific conception of the individual being, specifically the human being, that has guided, informed, and shaped much of history since the beginning of the Gutenberg Revolution.   

There is something intimate about the print book that, while allowing for the democratization of information*, did not eviscerate the individual in the process.  In the West, a hierarchical cult no longer controlled the foundational cultural text, neither linguistically nor distributionally.  And after this disruptive new technology had unfolded, the Enlightenment soon followed as well as the rise of humanism. 

Now I am no historian, and do not want to get bogged down in an archeological dig regarding intellectual movements that span centuries, are extremely complicated, and difficult to extrapolate from.  That would be a job for many books and much synthesis—not just one blog post.  The only tentative point I want to make here is confined to how we conceive of ourselves, and how print books differ from ebooks in that regard. 

As one example, the oral tradition, with the Iliad and Odyssey as its two most notable offspring in the West, stands in large contrast to the autonomous individuality that followed from mass print.  The former, a collective dramatic consciousness, is a timeless whole even as each constituent part eventually departs and dies.  The latter, “a marketplace of ideas”, implies by its very nature a community of individual beings buying and selling, sharing and contributing.  As someone partaking in the ahistorical chorus of Homeric epics, I would be defined by my social and cultural ties but without the means of reacting against them or breaking from it.  On the other hand, the practice of reading alone, and quietly, strongly implies a sense of aloneness.  With the printed book, the chorus is slowed to a conversation, with breaks, pauses, and interruptions. 

There is a permanence built into its very physical structure that requires systems of distribution, like libraries, stores, and shelves, which impart a different rhythm to the intellectual exchange just as those taking part in the exchange are given new shape, greater authority, and more individuality.

Then there are ebooks which are only the latest iteration in a synthetic evolution of the intellectual tradition.  Most of the quality ones that I have come across, and which are not simply electronic versions of their material counterparts, are shorter than the traditional book.  They are not meant to be the final word on something, or necessarily even an important one, but rather just “MY WORD” on something.  Literature has always involved ego, but the Internet seems to have put it into overdrive.  We all have “online” identities now, in addition to or instead of our other ones.  Everyone who writes online needs to have  a “brand,” they need to “market” themselves, and most importantly of all, we need to be in the (k)now.

And in many ways, it is as if the Internet, which is the quintessential “enabling” technology, has borrowed from and then put into overdrive so many of the patterns of the print book era as to have rendered an intellectual space which combines the print and oral traditions but resembles neither.  The Internet is a conversation taking place at such a rapid speed that it is at time a muddled chorus, and at others a cacophonous chatter.  We are not angry birds, just loud and endlessly talkative ones.  And what we have to show for it is hard to quantify and not the least bit apparent to me. 

In the modern era books were about their authors and whatever their authors thought the books should mean.  The postmodern period decided the opposite, and argued that it was really the readers that mattered and what they thought, the author’s intent be damned.  Now everyone who is a reader also writes and no one knows what the hell is going on.  I am no longer just the reflection of the political, economic, and cultural realities that created me.  But I’m also no longer just myself, with multiple online personas, multiple communities of which I’m a part, and which often have nothing to do with one another.

It’s certainly an interesting situation, but it’s also a problematic one, not least of all because of the size of the systems at work, and the speed at which they live and breathe.  If someone censors, revises, or edits an ebook after its publication, no one will know—except that its the Internet so of course someone will know, and pics of the deleted or altered sections will make their way to Twitter, at which point everyone else will find out about it, and twitto-versies will ensue, and everyone will blog about it, post status updates on Facebook about it, and might even chat the next day in person about it over breakfast.  And that is what is incredibly awe inspiring, but also alienating, about the entire process. 

The Tea Party has lost media visibility, but it still exists and remains a political force to be reckoned with.  Occupy does not.  The one took momentary outrage, resentment, and protest and joined it with a lasting, more permanent organizing structure.  The other did not, and as a result, has gone just as quickly as it came.  Perhaps this means that the “flash” is the quintessential Internet form: flash mobs, flash controversies, flash scandals, flash outrage, flash protest, and flash insights. 

I’m not aware of any sites that blacked out for SOAPA for more than a day.  Occupy tried to tie itself to a place, but when that failed, never tied itself to an organization because of their aversion to hierarchy.  What has survived that protest is a meme rather than an idea or argument, which will be recycled endlessly but without ever leading to the impact its creators had hoped it would.

What this all means I have no clue.  I do know, however, that there is more to the discussion over digital and physical media than the nostalgic rants by a few and self-certain progressivism by many more.  That a medium hell-bent on discussing everything under the sun (or the screen), seems unusually resistant to charitably taking up this one, is dishearteningly ironic, and needs to change.   

*I’m curious if anyone has ever compared the “print divide” to the “digital divide.”  The discrepency in number of books vs. number of computers in libraries and universities alone would seem to suggest that print knowledge remains more accesible.

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21 thoughts on “In Which I Discuss Jonathan Franzen’s Remarks at Length

  1. The issue that I rarely see on this issue is the issue of reading & class.  Ebooks are indeed cheaper to produce, but in order to access them you need to make a sizable capital investment in an iPad, or a Kindle, or a desktop computer.  Despite what we tell ourselves, these are luxury items.

    A worry I have about ebooks muscling out paper is that I can see it leading to a culture where reading is something that the only the middle and upper classes get to do.  With paper, someone earning squat can still check out the Federalist Papers or The House at Pooh Corner for free from the library.  They may not be able to spring for the X number of $100s of dollars needed to buy the equipment so that they can then buy them for $5 apiece.

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  2. About the only meaningful criticism of e-books I’ve seen is that if you keep your files somewhere remote, then it someone can change the text without you knowing. Suddenly Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.

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  3. When I was studying film in school, we shot in both digital and 16mm. For one digital project, I shot over 100 minutes of footage and edited down to seven. For a 16mm project, I shot three and a half minutes and edited down to 2:45 (mostly because film is so expensive). I’m not sure which I liked better. (I definitely think film looks better than digital. I’m not sure how this translates to ebooks.)

    Making the digital video required a minimal amount of planning and a lot of post-production. The film required a lot of careful planning and little post-production. I’m not sure what that means other than: digital technologies mean a lot more voices can be heard, even if the quality goes down.

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    • It’s possible to get a film “look” with video; most of the reason that they look different is the number of things that modern videocameras do to make up for amateur producers operating in suboptimal conditions.  There are various ways to creatively degrade the video’s performance so that it’s similar to a film camera (at which point, of course, you must do the film-camera tricks to make up for the limitations–but, as you’re doing film-camera things, the result looks like film.)

      Although what this means is that a lot of the benefit of the video (in terms of flexibility and minimized planning) goes away.  But hey, we suffer for our art!

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    • I don’t think he mistakes the permanence of the paper for the permanence of the text.  It’s the loss of the “sense of permanence” that he’s lamenting — not the actual permanence.  Of course the paper isn’t permanent.*  But there is a particular understanding of permanence lent to the text by the physical printed book that is not the same as whatever understanding of permanence is lent to the text by the digital screen.

      This is only partly about 1984 (and Amazon’s 1984 debacle — though that, frankly, is the reason I’ll keep buying $5 codexes from used book shops rather than $5 e-books), and only partly about edit-ability on the part of whomever.  The book is an object that is, in essence, the text: the word, as it were, made tree-flesh.  The Kindle is not — it’s any assortment of texts, any one of which can be called up at any moment.  With a book, you can hold the text — trying to hold a digital text is somewhere closer to Odysseus trying to embrace his mother’s shade.  I can hand you Freedom with both hands and look you in the eye as I do so in a way that is not quite the same when I hand you a Kindle on which I’ve pulled the text up.

      Physicality, of course, denotes impermanence.  Dust to dust &c. hold for paper as well as men.  But we’re not after actual permanence — we’re after the sense of it.  Physicality can be imparted with significance: there is a ritual of book-buying.  The trip to the store; the scanning of shelves; examining the edition; perhaps even weighing different bindings against one another; the book found by happenstance or because you knew you wanted to purchase it but had to arrange to possess it.  There is a reason that the book (or any item!) purchased in this way will feel more significant than when/if one walks into a university bookstore, finds the course numbers, and haphazardly yanks copies off the shelf into the basket.

      The form itself carries meaning and ritual — the form carries its own, particular sense of permanence.  When one changes from the codex to the digital reader, the form changes; the sense of permanence changes.  (And just as it is possible that this new sense of permanence will be better or neutral than what it overtakes, it is also possible that it will be worse — and no matter the case, the change, as always, contains some loss.)  Ethan’s post above points in a direction that makes me think of Walter Ong’s Orality and LIteracy — the thesis, in essence, is that the form of communication affects the way societies think and interact.  There’s plenty to quibble with; the divide, certainly, isn’t as neat as he makes it, but his insistence that form matters is relevant.  I do think that it is possible that we’re seeing a shift into a different (more oral?) form of literacy.  In which case, it is entirely possible that the sense of permanence will (for at least a time, during transition — though, perhaps, far longer) give way to a sense of impermanence.

      Perhaps this is fetishization; perhaps this is the analysis of an aesthete; but isn’t calling what’s lost the sense of permanence precisely what those who have attacked Franzen over this have dismissed as “all” that’s going to be lost in the transition?**

      *I do, however, think that papyrus would likely survive a millennium in Oxyrhnnicus at least as well as a Kindle.

      **One final note.  Philip Roth, before the advent of the e-reader, had already declared: “Reading/writing people, we are through.”  Anyone who thinks their arguments contain the possibility of stopping the transition from the book to something else is fooling themselves.  Critiques of the e-reader aren’t really efforts to stop it.  They’re rear-guard efforts to preserve the memory of something of value that they fear (with cause) will be lost.

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      • This is all great stuff J.L.

        I think your point about the form is the central one.  Content on e-readers and the Internet more generally will of course be permanent in the most basic sense.  But the conversation surrounding them will be at once overwhelming in size, as well as ephemeral and extremely flighty.

        And i think the way you discuss the ritual surrounding the form, and how form dictates that, is somewhat in line with what I’m trying to get at.

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  4. 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.”

    I don’t do e-book, so I don’t really know how it works, but can you really delete/change/move around the text? I always thought it works like Adobe Reader, you can read, but not change anything. Even if you can, why would people want to change anything? Granted, Franzen’s prose is sometimes so insufferable I feel like throwing the book across the room, but I’m not going to waste time and energy fixing his work to suit my taste.

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    • In general there’s always a way to get at the source code, which is mostly some evolution of HTML.  I’ve found PDFs of out-of-print books and spent some time fixing the formatting myself (and, for that matter, rewriting what I saw as the clumsier parts of the text, along with fixing flat-out errors.)

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  5. There are two freedoms with physical books and not ebooks that keep me a physical book reader:

    1. Once I buy a book, I own it. It’s mine. I can loan it out not on the good faith of Amazon, but because I own it. This may seem like a small thing, and maybe it makes me a dinosaur, but this is a big deal to me.

    2. I can be reading during take-off and landing.

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  6. Isn’t one of the issues here is the fact that publishers are paying a lower percentage to the authors for e-book sales compared to paperback and hardback sales? I’m on the side of the authors here, it makes no sense for them to give the authors a smaller percentage when the overhead is less for e-book sales (no printing and warehousing costs, for a start). I’m not accusing Franzen of criticizing e-book because of money consideration, but the issue of the difference in royalty percentage is probably a more important issue to authors (especially struggling ones) compared to the evils of e-book.

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