January 30, 2012

"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."

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."

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.
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.

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.

41 comments:

mccullough said...

When you re-read a book many years later, it seems different because you have changed, even though the words on the page are the same.

It won't matter if the book is hard copy or electronic.

Scott M said...

"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.

I disagree strongly. While I don't know if I'm writing good fiction (we'll find out later this year, hopefully), the internet is a cornucopia of readily available. knowledge. Some of the things involved with what I'm doing are fairly technical, like nuke desalination plants, and there was a ton of data to mine online. Ditto city layouts, precipitation averages, etc, etc.

Yes, the internet can be a distraction and gaming doubly so, but that's purely a matter of self-discipline. I agree you need isolation to stay tuned in to that inner Muse, but not to the extent that you're cutting yourself off from potentially valuable research material.

Pastafarian said...

At first, I thought this was about Johan Franzen, but then I saw the part about "when I read a book." I'm pretty sure Franzen can't read. If he takes a book off the shelf, he's either going to eat it or use it to make fire.

He's a hell of a power forward, though.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

"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."

It will matter if the original content can be changed to comply with the ebb and flow of public opinions about political correctness.

Just look at the attempts to censor Mark Twain because the term "nigger" which was common in the era that it was written offends now. The terms and words used by authors were meant to convey certain things. To establish emotion and explain the position of the characters and the plot within a time line.

The words mean something. The ability of future generations to erase on a whim or at the altar of political correctness the historical aspects of the book and the intent of the author.....is frightening.

History is transitory enough without being able to alter it to suit our current sensibilities.

If you don't like Hitler and what he did (who does) and you decide to just erase his pixels from the record, how can we ever learn to not repeat the mistakes of the past.

If the past doesn't exist or we can manipulate it to suit ourselves we will be doomed to repeat it.

Skyler said...

Interesting. I guess it's a good way for the government to modify history or edit ideas. I imagine Stalin would have loved everyone switching to ebooks.

I see them in an entirely new light now. Not so sure I like it.

mikee said...

Han shot first!

While the medium changes, the message should remain the same.

Joe said...

I suppose Jonathan Franzen is so horrified by eBooks that he's rejecting all royalties from his own.

DCS said...

I suppose to be a serious writer you have to forget about shaving and brushing your hair for a few days, right Jonathan?

m stone said...

I think, Scott M., that Franzen is talking about writing fiction, when the internet does become a distraction rather than a resource.

As a published fiction novel writer, the page become everything (I use Dark Room and it has made all the difference): as close to total immersion as I've found. I think Franzen is right in that respect.

As to readers and the digital page: TBD.

I wish you well in your work, Scott.

traditionalguy said...

I love audible books. And I am tempted by Kindle type downloads.

But I worry about the erase powers. The next Nazi types will not need to collect and burn books. They will erase the digital memories...or better still replace the old memory with a cleaned up version a la Romney's book that Rick Perry had a hard copy of.

Tell me I am wrong. Then all will be OK.

Scott M said...

I wish you well in your work, Scott.

I appreciate that. I'm actually in the process of planning out a workspace for myself that, unfortunately, is going to take up about 8 x 10 of my woodworking garage setup. I went so far as to send all of my bigger pieces like the tablesaw, the router table, and the dust collector, to my father's where there is plenty of room to be set up and used properly.

I'm going for a small, sound-proofed space with built-in bookshelves a couple of large dry erase boards and a couple of big cork bulletin boards. I'm looking at options that will allow me to vent the space separately from the house, so pipe smoke doesn't go anywhere else, but still have it heated and cooled effectively.

There's still going to be internet running to two computers in there, though.

m stone said...

I stand corrected, Scott. You ARE writing fiction I see.

Scott M said...

You ARE writing fiction I see.

What I'm currently doing is camping out at the dining room table after everyone else is in bed, spreading all of my notes, drawings, printouts, etc, out around me and cleaning it all up every evening before I go to bed myself.

Kind of a pain in the tukis.

Freeman Hunt said...

DBQ wrote: It will matter if the original content can be changed to comply with the ebb and flow of public opinions about political correctness.

tradguy wrote: But I worry about the erase powers. The next Nazi types will not need to collect and burn books. They will erase the digital memories...or better still replace the old memory with a cleaned up version

I love ebooks, but I do worry about these things. A lot.

kcom said...

Didn't someone just propose, in concept, a sort of Ministry of Truth? Rumors and "cospiracy theories" would be subject to take-down notices. It isn't such a big leap from there to "corrections" being required on previously published material. And with the way e-books work, the technical hurdles are minimal. Printed pages could turn out to be a boon to protecting our freedom in the long run. E-books are great but they do bring "1984" one step closer to being the art of the possible.

Alex said...

I just realized that my entire existence has become computer based. Streaming video, e-Books, games, digital music, even language learning. It's horrible I tell you! Whatever happened to sitting down with old dusty books in a rocking chair? Dammit - these digital whippersnappers have to be put back in their place - bring back the horse carriage!

Last stop at Willoughby....

Alex said...

kcom - that's why many people find Apple's "walled garden" disturbing. They have hooks into applications that might allow them to yank your eBook from you or update it without your permission. Of course that wouldn't happen NOW - but in 8-10 more years of Obama's tender mercies?

Tibore said...

"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."


Oh, *yawn*. Translation: "I have one specific way of approaching books, I'm going to present it as if it's the best way to do so and implicate this newest process by insinuation." Blech. I recall reading the same type of complaints when typewriters replaced handwritten manuscripts. And I recall that because it was in the context of an author replacing his typewriter with a word processor. No, not MS Word, WordPerfect, or even some old clunker program like Wordstar. I mean a word processor, i.e. one of those old appliances that had a single or two-line screen where you typed and proofread before it would actually print out the page.

My point? It's more of the same nostalgia for buggy whips. And that author making the recollection realized this, which was the driving force behind his migration toward then current technologies.

I've been playing with the Kindle app for the past couple of months. Recently, because my state's "e-library" had an ebook available that I actually own, I decided to "borrow" it just to see what the experience was like.

The sense of the narrative was still the same. Exactly so. But now, I didn't have a heavy tome to carry around, plus I had search features that I wouldn't otherwise have had with a physical book. So for me, it's the same experience plus added benefit. I'm not mourning the loss.

Sure, there's nostalgic value in old time processes. I'd like to disappear into a darkroom for a day, just to have the sort of fun I used to back when film was king. But I don't confuse personal nostalgia for superiority, nor do I present it that way.

Scott M said...

Oh, *yawn*. Translation: "I have one specific way of approaching books, I'm going to present it as if it's the best way to do so and implicate this newest process by insinuation."

One of the best quotes out of "The Art Of War For Writers" was There are three golden rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."

edutcher said...

Dead tree books will survive because of any kind of high quality graphics (art, schematics, etc.)(unless you want to lug around a flat screen monitor).

They also have an advantage in that they can be dropped, get wet (somewhat), etc., and still be useful.

Otherwise. e-books are just dandy.

Paul said...

A Kindle displaying Proust looks the same as one displaying a bodice-ripper or pro wrestler bio to one's fellow straphangers. Likewise, house guests cannot tell that the Nook sitting on your bookshelf contains Baudelaire, much less a Dillon and Millay-translated first edition of The Flowers of Evil with a foil-embossed spine and marbled endpapers.

This is a major bug for people who don't get much pleasure from reading if they can't ostentatiously display to others what it is they are currently slogging through and what they couldn't finish in college.

Alex said...

Paul - I agree on the pretentiousness of pretty books for display purposes. But what I think many people have a problem with are specialty books that can't be replicated yet in eBook format. F.e., graphic novels on glossy paper is a unique experience that I wouldn't trade in yet.

David-2 said...

"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."

An excellent example of the fallacy of generalizing from one's own experience.

Alex said...

If anything our current cloud storage model is a bulwark against barbarism. There are currently 500,000 datacenters in the world. That's like having 500,000 Libraries of Alexandria. You can take down a few, but good luck taking down 500,000.

Tibore said...

"But I worry about the erase powers. The next Nazi types will not need to collect and burn books. They will erase the digital memories...or better still replace the old memory with a cleaned up version a la Romney's book that Rick Perry had a hard copy of."

That's a legitimate concern, but e-documents simply make it easier to do; it's not like it's a newly open door to something that's not already occurred in bulk before. It's just a new look on an old thing. I think most here recall the photomanipulation of Soviet imagry to remove people from pictures with Stalin after they've fallen out of favor. And that's not even virtual manipulation; it's purely a physical (and quite literal!) cutting and pasting.

It's true that it's a concern. But at the same time, carrying uncorrupted copies of original works has never become easier. As a minor, trivial yet illuminating example: In pseudoscience refuting forums I play in, we often see charlatans write white papers, then change the "originals" without admission when obvious, glaring errors are pointed out. This is in order to make the originals appear flawless and well thought out. But in response, it's easy, and in fact trival to demonstrate the original error as well as the cover up by merely saving local copies of the works and displaying as needed.

Is the issue on a website? Services such as the Wayback Machine help in those cases.

The lesson: It can be fought. It just takes someone with the storage space somewhere - personal Yahoo or Gmail account, local hard drive, USB key, etc. - to store their own copy of the original. Sure, Nazi Germany was able to burn books, but the ability to limitlessly copy works and effectively decentralize them from libraries and the like has never been easier than it is today. USB keys ("thumb drives", or whatever you want to call them) are cheap, and can become as ubiquitous as pencils; it just takes enough people to purchase them.

This is not to say that this sort of e-rewriting is not a problem. I fully agree with TraditionalGuy that it's an issue that's worth worrying over. For example, how do you know that your copy is the original, correct one? There are electronic ways to set "digital fingerprints" to original electronic documents (hash function checksums is one thing that comes immediately to mind), but even then, the same checksum that would reveal illegitimate change would also become different for simple things like spelling corrections and legitimate addenda such as forwards, changes due to new versions, etc. It's not like the techniques to fight the problem are themselves problem free. There's a burden to them, and they have their own inherent issues.

But at the same time, I want to point out that it's still within the common person's power to fight against it. And those tools are already in so many people's hands, and commonly available in places as trivially accessible as Wal Mart and Office Max. Yes, there's a problem there. But there's no lack of ways to address it either.

David said...

Either way, his books won't be read in 50 years, nor will his little lecture be remembered.

Here is a man with a seriously inflated idea of his own importance.

David said...

Alex said...
If anything our current cloud storage model is a bulwark against barbarism. There are currently 500,000 datacenters in the world. That's like having 500,000 Libraries of Alexandria. You can take down a few, but good luck taking down 500,000.


Does the cloud replicate everything 500,000 times, or break it up into retrievable parts stored in different places? I don't think the "cloud" stores everything redundantly on tens of thousands of servers.

Alex said...

David - it's true that the 500K datacenters are heterogeneous as far as what content they are storing and which applications they run. But just to give an example with Amazon.com, I'm sure your Kindle books are replicated over many servers.

John Lynch said...

I think fiction writers will be happy because their work will never go out of print. This is the biggest effect of ebooks that's never talked about. And they'll get more in royalties.

People can still buy print copies and authors don't have to sell an electronic copy. No one has to buy ebooks. The fact that ebooks are becoming more popular is consumer and author choice.

This sort of textualist romantic nonsense is why I wasn't an English major.

Alex said...

Paper rots, bits keep getting replicated to new servers forever. Which is going to be more permanent? As long as civilization survives - our digital bits will too.

Peter said...

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."

This seems to be based on the meme that change is coming faster and faster.

Yet, technological change seems to have slowed down. After all, the first half of the 20th century saw the introduction of electricity, radio, TV, movies, phonographs, telephones and central heating; motorcars and air travel; subways and auto suburbs. Not to mention central heating.

I just don't see that the technical changes of the last half-century compare. Revolutionary technical changes since then have mostly been due to electronics.

It's not that nothing else has changed, but, not on the same scale.

As for e-books, presently they are just an electronic version of a paper book. But there's no reason to expect them to stay that way.

Aside from their modifyability, there surely is the potential to use software to create an assortment of nonlinear paths through a narrative.

Alex said...

Peter - I definitely agree that the last 30 years has been revolutionary due to electronics and software. How do older people cope with cellphones, PCs, tablets, internet, eBooks, augmented reality and so on? It's just too much. I think for those of use who read science fiction - we know what's coming in the next 50 years and we will be able to psychologically cope with what the new reality will be c. 2050. But old sci-fi written in the 1930s was actually not very prescient. In addition to our improving technology, our science fiction improves as well.

Jose_K said...

The acclaimed author of Freedom and The Corrections . i read the corrections because he was Tom Wolfe´s protegee. I read 15 pages before sending the book to the blackhole were boring books go

Jose_K said...

If you don't like Hitler and what he did (who does)? Pat Bucchannan, Duke something, Haider( used too)and those people as Skokie 37% of german voters in 1933. Lindberg and i can go on

Salamandyr said...

graphic novels on glossy paper is a unique experience that I wouldn't trade in yet.

In my opinion the backlit screen of a tablet is actually superior for viewing comics/graphic novels than paper. It really makes the colors pop, a necessary requirement with today's comics, with their muddy colors and dark borders.

Jennifer said...

I like ebooks. I'm taking my phone with me anyway whenever we travel and there's no need to pack extra books. And if I finish one, I can just buy another. No need to worry about whether books in my language of choice are sold wherever I happen to be.

BUT. Ebooks have never and possibly may never feel like real books to me. It's just not the same and I like how he's articulated that difference here.

And they're nowhere near as pretty. As publishing houses re-release classics with covers redesigned by modern artists, I've been building a lovely collection of pretty books.

I recently saw the work of someone who buys used classics and recovers them with embroidered fabric and handletters the titles. The calligraphy, fabric and embroidery together is gorgeous! And now I want to restart my collection. Hmmm, perhaps the importance of permanence is escaping me as well.

Gabriel Hanna said...

1) Books are not immune to being rewritten. Some time in the 80s Issac Asimov revised the original Foundation trilogy, removing the 50's slang (and maybe the tobacco references, I don't remember). But I was able to hunt around used bookstores and find versions that hadn't been updated, because the physical copies existed.

2) Physical books speak for themselves. Digital copies are strings of ones and zeros that need to be interpreted. Imagine that the original Rosetta stone had been on DVD. We'd have been trying to interpret a smooth disk that gives no outward indication of what it is--is it jewelry, is it a coaster--and even if we knew enough to figure out that it had ones and zeroes encoded in it, we'd have little idea how to intepret them, because that was all done by softward and hardware that no longer exists.

I have a set of photographic negatives my grandfather took in the 30s and 40s. I don't understand everything I'm looking at. Nobody cared enough to save the prints from them, but I was able to recognize what they were and reprint them. But my grandchildren won't, they'll have smooth plastics discs containing who knows what, unable to speak for themselves.

Digital is good for long-term storage, if by long-term you mean years, but maybe not if "long-term" means centuries.

Miss Emily said...

Back in November 2010 I downloaded the free Kindle app for PC's to my netbook, and haven't looked back. Since then I *think* I've bought 4 analog books- one medical & one survival for my bugout bag. A copy of Island of the Mighty that I read as a teenager nearly 50 years ago. A copy of Sew Everything Workshop so I can use my late wife's sewing machine.

It's certainly different from “the book experience” but overall I like it. I pulled a few old analog books to reread recently... the type is so small. I like the ebook's scalable fonts. The pages were so yellow they were hard to read.

The tampering potential is a worry but you can back this stuff up- it's just folders & files.

I'm one of those odd birds who goes to sleep reading- and whenever I'd near the end of an analog book I always felt a minor panic- “what am going to read next?” With ebooks that ceased.

I'd add I think the $0.99 ebook is the way to go- I refuse to pay anything close to $10 for a file of bytes unless it's something I can't live without.
( I see I'm signed in as The Dead Miss Emily- this is John, her husband )

jeff said...

And yet when I was very young I read the Hardy Boys mystery books. I would find older published books with the exact same title and same basic stories and characters as the newer published books yet the books were vastly different. I found out much later that the publisher, deciding that the older versions were racist and offensive, cleaned them up for republishing. And yet these were all printed, hard cover even. How can this possibly be so? This was decades before digital books were even thought of.

William said...

@Scott M: Congratulations on your elaborate preps. I would recommend that before moving your woodworking kit that you fashion a new desk and chair. The reason why many people find writing difficult and laborious is that they do not have a custom built desk and chair. You might also think about installing a redundant electrical and heating system in case there are any breakdowns during moments of creativity. With the right preparation, you can put off the actual writing not just for months but for years.....I don't know if there's so much difference reading an e-book vs a real book, but there's a huge difference in buying a real book vs an e-book. I love the serendipity of a used book store. There's a sense of happenstance and destiny when you find a book you like in a used bookstore. I've never bought anything on kindle, but I get the sense that the act is deliberate and pre meditated.

raf said...

Since the Constitution is a living, breathing document which would clearly bebefit from having its language updated for greater clarity in this modern era, I don't see why all other printed works shouldn't benefit from the same exciting new technology.