The E/Book Wars, Round Whatever

I almost wrote this post back when Lev Grossman went all rhapsodic about paper books:

The codex is built for nonlinear reading — not the way a Web surfer does it, aimlessly questing from document to document, but the way a deep reader does it, navigating the network of internal connections that exists within a single rich document like a novel. Indeed, the codex isn’t just another format, it’s the one for which the novel is optimized. The contemporary novel’s dense, layered language took root and grew in the codex, and it demands the kind of navigation that only the codex provides. Imagine trying to negotiate the nested, echoing labyrinth of David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas” if it were transcribed onto a scroll. It couldn’t be done.

Every time an author starts talking like this, I start twitching, because I’m allergic to the stupidity under all the poetic nostalgia. Do most people read novels non-linearly? I ask because I need to know. I have been known to skip forward and back in books, particularly when I’ve read them before, but after deciding to read a book, which is usually based on first sentences, skimming around the internet for reviews and discussion of it, and very occasionally, from last sentences, I usually read from beginning to end of the book, unless I quit in the middle. I do enjoy the ability to pick up a paper book I’ve read before, open it to an unspecified point, and find myself in a familiar scene, but that’s not how people traditionally read books. We use goddamn bookmarks, for fuck’s sake. Because we want to keep our place as we progress through a text in a linear fashion.

So now Jonathan Franzen is complaining about ebooks. [My guess? They don’t like him much either.]

“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.


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.”

This is ridiculous. That’s the whole point of ebooks – the text doesn’t change. The delivery method changes. Franzen has picked out the ONE thing that paper books and ebooks have in common and held it up as being an irreplaceable feature of paper books.

I understand being attached to delivery methods. I don’t particularly enjoy audiobooks – I like text on a page or screen, and I find myself unable to concentrate on most audiobooks. The noise itself is distressing to me – but I can overlook my own experience of audiobooks to realize that other people like them very much, that they offer an experience that paper texts don’t (voices, dramatic inflection, music, sound effects), and that in some cases, they allow people to experience and access texts who previously could not do so. Paper books and audio books have co-existed peacefully for some time now, and I know people who buy one or the other or sometimes both. People want access to their favorite books in a wide variety of forms, and the more forms available, the more they will buy.

What Franzen really means, perhaps, is that he likes specific physical editions of books, which is something I am wholly sympathetic to, belonging as I do to a group of readers that I refuse to believe is as small as its online representation: people who like paper books AND ebooks, and see value and use in both. It’s perfectly legitimate to state a preference for the tangible experience of reading a book printed on paper, to discuss the smell and feel of paper, ink, glue, cloth and leather, etc. I love going into libraries and bookstores, taking a deep breath of air that lives around books, eyeing shelves spilling with volumes, but ink on paper can be torn, shredded, pulped, burned, erased as effectively as data from a computer’s memory.

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.”

What Franzen misses or forgets or possibly finds of no consequence is that stories, narratives, existed before the invention of the codex, and if it falls entirely out of use, stories and narratives will continue. Stories are the souls, codices are the bodies. It’s funny that he would be so enamored of mortality while he exalts a specific vehicle as a permanent object. It makes perfect sense that Franzen, willing to give up the ghost when the time comes, wouldn’t understand that one can inhabit a device, that to be in the machine is just another facet of the experience of being human, and that literature via machine can be just as human.

In another Telegraph piece, he says he and his girlfriend “read in the evening. Or if we’re involved in a TV series on DVD and we’re tired, we treat ourselves to that.” There’s an inference here that treat could be read as junk food, and I was certainly raised to see all television as junk food, but it’s not, and he also says involved with. We get involved with compelling stories, no matter how they are delivered to us. There’s plenty to be said about reading vs watching tv, but an active mind interrogates the text and the viewing experience, and my parents were wrong: not all tv is junk food. Jonathan Franzen and the anti-ebook gang are also wrong. Paper codex & robot library, there’s room for both.

I know most articles in the e/book wars are written to get clicks on links, like all articles, otherwise we’d be writing them in our paper notebooks and not telling anyone. But some of them seem to actually feel strongly about their opinions, and I feel strongly about mine, so hey, click on all these links!

A lot of people on Twitter were much more succinct and significantly more funny than I am on this topic: