Is Jonathan Franzen Right?

Are e-books damaging society? I’ve been thinking a lot about the piece that appeared in the Telegraph this week citing Franzen’sexploding-earth-bomb-clip-art-thumb2794671 hatred of e-books.

I was fully prepared to be annoyed by the article when I read the headline. While I’m not fatalistic enough to link the downward trajectory of society to e-books (or at least not solely to e-books), I enjoyed some of Franzen’s points, particularly this one about permanence of physical books:

“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 like thinking about books this way. Sure, I own an iPad and a Kindle, and I have a slew of e-books on both of ’em. I love being able to purchase books on a whim–in the middle of the night, on a rainy Sunday, whatever– from the comfort of my own home. But I often feel a certain hollowness when I’ve completed a download. I like the way a real book takes up space in my life the way an e-book can’t. If I download a book,  visiting friends can’t pull it off of the shelf and thumb through it. My infant son can’t grab it and chew on the corner, leaving little dimples in the jacket (which annoys me now and which I will feel nostalgic  about later when he stops chewing on things).  I can’t slip a piece of paper into the book to mark my place, or tuck the paperwork I’m carrying around with me between the front cover and the title page. I can’t scrawl a friend’s phone number on the inside back cover.

I asked my interns to share their thoughts..”I actually bought both of Jonthan Franzen’s books on my Kindle,” one intern said sheepishly. ” They’re 600 pages long! Who wants to lug that around with them all day?”

Ha ha. Touché, Jonathan Franzen.

  1. I love e-books, until I finish them. There’s this strange sense of incompleteness when I can’t place an actual physical book back on my bookshelf. Apparently this re-shelving is part of the experience for me – I love seeing the books I’ve read taking up space in my house, a reminder not only of the content inside, but of what was going on in my life when I read it, what I learned from it, etc., like a touchstone to the past. The virtual bookshelf is not the same.

    That said, I don’t think that taking this sentimental attachment to physical books away is going to damage society. Think of those people who worshipped the LP. Think of the oral tradition of storytelling all those centuries ago being turned on its head by the advent of the printing press (gasp!). As long as the music can be played, or the story told, does the manner with which its delivered really matter?


  2. Even as a librarian, our jobs have changed with the addition of eresources, and the ways we help patrons. Personally, nothing will replace the feeling of the weight of a book in my hands. Or that new book smell (I can’t be the only one sniffing books right? Right?!). There’s something to be said for holding in my hands the copy of Alice in Wonderland, and Through the looking glass, that my dad read to me as a little girl. Those books survived our house fire, and if I have children, one day I’ll read to them from those copies. E-books are great, but hard copy is greater. 🙂


  3. LOL on that touche’!


  4. I’m a newspaper book reviewer and I am soooo thrilled when authors/publicists offer me e-versions of their books, instead of sending a hard copy. Yes, there will always be some books in my home (thousands here, already…many nibbled on by my own four kids), but I looove ebooks.


  5. I think e-books are a great way to try out potential favorites that will eventually end up on your bookshelf. Change is inevitable. My advice to Mr. Franzen would be to embrace it, as I’m sure millions of trees are embracing this new trend as well.


  6. Oh, books as objects will always have appeal. But the sad truth is that most books are, for most people, disposable. The experience of reading isn’t disposable, but the particular vessel is. I love my Nook Tablet, and I am grateful for it.

    Now, before people get all up in arms about this statement, look at the qualifications. For most people, most books. Not all books nor all people.

    The thing is, the books I truly love? I get a copy (sometimes more than one). But the more I read, the more I realize I neither want nor need to haul around all of those dead trees. And now I don’t have to! I can just download a copy if I want to read it again, or borrow it from a library.

    There is a last gasp fetishism that takes place when media formats change—audiophiles who decried CDs and insisted on vinyl; audiophiles who decried MP3s and insisted on CDs; readers who decried paperback books as a bastardization of the permanence of the written word; art critics who lamented the destruction of art’s impact on viewers because of the advent of mechanical reproduction.

    But these clarion calls miss the point. The permanent version remains. But the soul of the thing—the image or the text or the music—can now be more widely and easily disseminated, reaching a truly mass audience.

    And if you still want a hard copy of the thing to cherish, why, you can always go out and get one.


  7. Also, I love that the intern bought “both” of Franzen’s novels on the Kindle. He’s written four novels, actually, as well as two nonfiction books.

    Which is something that would be more apparent if in order to buy those first two novels, she’d had to go to a bookstore and pull them off a shelf. She’d have seen his first two books.

    Mostly what I lament as lost in the shift to e-texts is the experience of doing research. Would go to library, find the call number, and then browse around it, finding many texts I’d have never come across otherwise.

    O grave new world!


  8. E-books are fine, hard copies are fine. The impermanance of e-books doesn’t bother me at all. When I finish a hard copy, I give it away, either to a friend or to Goodwill. I have no use for a bunch of books I’ve already read sitting on a bookshelf. That strikes me as more egotistical than anything else: “Look at how well-read I am!” Maybe people need to do that to impress themselves.

    Besides, most books are not worth reading again. And there’s so much more out there, I like to move on.


  9. E-books are fine, for other people, and if it helps them access books they wouldn’t otherwise read, great. It could be that e-books are growing the overall publishing market rather than shrinking the print market.

    For me, I like the paper-covered thing, and am always glad to hear there are readers out there who are like-minded. There has to be enough of us so the market will keep producing traditionally printed books.


  10. Very insightful. I find certain topics demand the “permanence” of a hard copy. I’m writing a book for parents which means I read a lot of books for parents. The lifestyle changes these books support aren’t implemented overnight. Having them physically on my shelf is a reminder to continue the process of change. And loaning them to other parents helps continue the conversation.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.