There was a big brouhaha in the writing community this week when literary hotshot Jonathan Franzen spoke at the Hay Festival and talked about how much he hates ebooks. Well, that’s what all the headlines said. To be fair, he talked about politics, the permanency of print books and something about capitalism. So, he talked about several subjects. Specifically as to ebooks he 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.
Honestly, I’m not quite sure what that means since print books can be, and some are, updated as new editions are released. More importantly, a book is a book. The issues in the debate about ebooks versus print books aren’t really about one being a book and the other not. They’re both books.I guess Franzen can pretend that’s not true, but I don’t know how he would make a compelling argument for his position. The real issues in the ebooks versus print debate are about delivery (how you get it) and the bundle of rights given to the reader (what the reader gets – i.e., can you turn it into a used book store or give it to friends). We can talk about those, especially the latter since it deserves some discussion, but the book, the actual book I buy in print, is the same as the one I download to my kindle. If the book is only available in digital that doesn’t make it any less of a book. it simply means someone decided the delivery will be digital only. Again, and this warrants a repeat, regardless of how you get them books are books.
I really think the “ebooks are the devil” argument has more to do with fear of change than anything else. For some reason, and I’m not exactly clear why, there are folks out there who are terrified that the rise in ebooks will mean the end of reading as we know. As if democracy will fail, societies will crumble and people will lose the skill of writing things down. I just don’t see it. Seems to me the availability of ereaders has opened more people up to reading. I know that’s what happened in my house. My husband is not a big reader, or I should say he wasn’t until he got his Kindle Fire. In the past, he’d read a book every now and then, most of them based on real-life events, like books by Erik Larson. Then he got the ereader at the end of last year. He started out downloading some $.99 books just to try them. Then he found The Hunger Games and raced through it. Then he started downloading books he’d heard about from…somewhere. He now emails me from work about books he’s seen in the Wall Street Journal or online and asks if I’ve heard of them. There are a few books I’ve found because of him. He’ll try anything at all – popular fiction, literary fiction and self-published wonders. He does not have any book bias or snobbery issues. Buying books for fun is not something he did before. He does it now. And I could not be happier about the change.
My theory about ereaders boils down to this: the sky isn’t falling. It’s expanding, opening to more options for authors and readers. If people are like me, they buy print and ebooks and try things they never would have tried before. That can only be good for anyone who loves books.