Jonathan Franzen worries that ebooks — in place of print books — will reorient us in negative ways.
"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."Of course, the internet and the fluidity of etexts have changed us, and the changes should be particularly upsetting to fiction writers. In the future, who will sit down with a tome and become one with the sealed-off complete world created by a novelist? The internet is calling. Who can read a book? To read books now, I load them up in my iPad and read some of one and then another and another. I rotate the texts to give reading books more of a feeling of clicking all over the place on the internet. That feels more exciting and natural to me now.
For serious readers, Franzen said, "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," he continued. "Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don't have a crystal ball. 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."
The acclaimed author of Freedom and The Corrections – which are published as ebooks – has said in the past that "it's doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction". He seals the ethernet port on his own computer to prevent him connecting to the internet while he writes, also removing the card so he is unable to play computer games and wearing noise-cancelling headphones to prevent distraction.
Does my iPad book mix include any Frantzen? Yeah, I've got "How to Be Alone" — a collection of essays, nonfiction. And my audiobook collection, which I listen to in bits and shreds, includes "The Discomfort Zone" — which is nonfiction, a memoir full of relatively disconnected scenes.
Speaking of impermanence and dissolution, Franzen says:
"One of the consolations of dying is that... '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."Well, you could take off the noise-cancellation headphones, plug the ethernet back in, and flow and float through change on a minute-by-minute basis. But that would only deprive you of what Franzen sees as a basis for a positive attitude toward death. You'll still die in the end, but without the consolation of being saved from what you found unbearable — change.
Now, I'm seeing in Franzen's reasoning the notion that we ought to want to curl up with a good long fiction book in order to relinquish our hold on life. Is that what draws us, instead, into the vivid, roiling experience of ever-changing texts on the web? It's life, and we want to live.