In Which I Discuss Jonathan Franzen’s Remarks at Length

Ethan Gach

I write about comics, video games and American politics. I fear death above all things. Just below that is waking up in the morning to go to work. You can follow me on Twitter at @ethangach or at my blog, And though my opinions aren’t for hire, my virtue is.

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21 Responses

  1. Tod Kelly says:

    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.Report

  2. DensityDuck says:

    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.Report

  3. Christopher Carr says:

    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.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Christopher Carr says:

      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!Report

  4. E.D.Kain says:

    It’s so hip to rag on capitalists…

    Franzen mistakes what’s permanent in this discussion. It’s not the paper.Report

    • E.C. Gach in reply to E.D.Kain says:

      But can you have one without the other?

      Is there nothing lost in that regard?Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to E.D.Kain says:

      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.Report

      • E.C. Gach in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        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.Report

  5. sonmi451 says:

    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.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to sonmi451 says:

      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.)Report

  6. Will Truman says:

    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.Report

  7. sonmi451 says:

    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.Report

  8. James Hanley says:

    Oh, Jonathan Franzen.  At first I thought you were talking about this guy.Report