Sunday, February 12, 2012

On Impermanence, or Jonathan Franzen and e-books

Speaking two weeks ago at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, Jonathan Franzen created quite a stir with his remarks about e-books and the sense of permanence he experiences with the printed word in opposition to the "impermanence" of digital or electronic publishing.

“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 … 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 was called reactionary, Victorian, a crank, a Luddite, a whiner, and more.

At the risk of sounding like a reactionary Luddite (full disclosure: I do not yet own an e-reader or a smart phone; nor have I ever read a book by Franzen), the responses came across to me as, well, a bit reactionary, whiny, and cranky.

There may be reasons to lament the proliferation of e-reading devices (and probably the most important relate to the conditions of laborers working long hours to assemble them, and the environmental impact these devices will have as they make their way into landfills) but they are not going anywhere (for many good reasons: convenience, ability to improve reading capabilities for sight-impaired people, reduced dependence on paper, etc) and neither are books. There is definitely room for both.

Unlike Franzen, I fully expect (hope?) to be alive in 50 years (though I’ll be over 90 years old) and I also fully expect to be able to purchase a book (and maybe even a record, and good stationary) … in a physical store (we’ll avoid the Amazon debate for now).

I, too, love books as objects and enjoy the aesthetic experience of holding one. I love to browse books at a store and it’s a much different (and more enjoyable) experience to browsing online. There is a kind of comfort to be found sitting with a book, surrounded by shelves filled with other books that I, for one, do not get from electronic devices. Similarly, holding and re-reading a hand-written letter has more impact than the email that, oops, I just deleted. After spending all day on my laptop working I’d love to put it away in the evening, to be completely device-free, and not have to look at another screen. My evenings are rarely screen free.

Permanence is not a nasty word, as some seem to feel based on many of the comments in response to Franzen’s remarks. It seems that in an age of impermanence, when so much of what we consume is temporary and quickly thrown away that a little permanence would be welcome. Of course, in much of our lives the idea of permanence is valued: we generally respect and admire those couples with the perseverance (stubbornness?) to remain married for a lifetime; a sense of stability and permanence is widely regarding by social scientists and parenting experts as being important to the development of emotionally strong and healthy children; and in our current economic situation who wouldn’t like to know they had the stability of a regular (or permanent) paycheck coming in.

The permanence of the printed word also plays a significant role in my parenting and my 21-month-old son now owns some of the same books I acquired 40 years ago. Perhaps someday he’ll read the same books my parents read to me to his children. Logan loves to “read” along and giggles while turning pages despite Grover’s plea to stop before we discover the “monster at the end of the book.” Can you really replicate that experience on an e-reader?

We’re not Luddites, by the way. He does already own a (Leapfrog) “laptop” (and other electronic devices) but when my son wants to cuddle with us he doesn’t grab one of these. Instead he carefully picks out one of his dozens of books, cultivating a love of reading and an appreciation for the permanence of the printed page and begs us to read just “one more”, all while also experiencing the permanence of his parents’ love for him.

If you think that is “Victorian” or reactionary, so be it.

1 comment:

sandra said...

I agreed with all that you said. I also love the feel of books. The snuggling aspect, no other feeling is greater than this. Reading to my children and now grandchildren is an act you cannot replace. Having that little one finish the sentence before you can say the word, heavenly.

Guess I deleled something!!!