mountain of a mole hill (on a shifting continent)

Jonathan Franzen, perhaps the most renowned writer in the publishing landscape of contemporary American Literature, recently made some comments about the demise of the printed word (via The Telegraph):

He (Franzen) 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.”

For the last few days, the comments have been making the lit blog rounds in a slightly sensationalized fashion.  As someone who loves books , I think a shrinking market for tangible books is certainly something to bemoan.   There’s one dimension to Franzen’s comments, however, that almost feels like a king talking about the demise of royalty.  While the option to refresh ebooks is there,  I don’t think it’s one that’s utilized in a way that’s constantly changing ebooks that people own.  I’m not sure any ebook proprietor would be willing to constantly update one’s copy of an ebook after its initial purchase.  I’m not talking from much personal experience;  it just doesn’t seem practical.  The possibility may be there and should be guarded against, but mostly I think the idea is another millionsesque dig at whom the literati deem a school of self-published goldfish clouding up their pools.

Across the board, companies have been appealing to people’s sense of “easier, faster, quicker.”  Consequentally, reading for substance is not universally regarded the way it once was.   For those that haven’t had the experience of getting such substance (for whatever reason), reading in the form of a little screen may often be an abridged process.  But I don’t think that, and the smaller minds it may form, is what Franzen is talking about.  Ebooks, afterall, have the potential to be thousands of ‘pages’ long.

As he’s quoted there, Franzen makes it sound as if any writer who worked hard and crafted a book to the best of their ability just gets to this point of– “Yes, now is the time to publish it.  And as I say it,  so shall it be done.”  He goes from “someone” working hard on language to “they” being sure enough of its worth to have it published, all without explicitly saying who “they” are–the publishing world that chose his book to be edited and sent through a process.  To be fair, it’s common industry knowledge that books aren’t edited quite the way they used to be–and additionally, I’m not saying Franzen would be nothing without this process.  It’s just funny how much standing it gives writers whom fit some standard that is far more arbitrary than Franzen’s ideals.

One of the simplest reasons that books are great is that, once you’re able to read, they’re self-fulfilling.  No need for electricity, wi-fi or any of that stuff.  And most people who might be reading this probably take electricity as a given.

Beyond taking conveniences for granted, I think the real tragedy is that books are going to be like records.  Printed copies of published books will be sought after by the people that love them, or sometimes just the exclusive idea of them.  But until that happens, as long as some books are cheap enough, the millions of them out there will continue to be in circulation for the generations that grew up with them–and for the member of any generation that isn’t provided with or able to afford an ereader.

I just hope that if newly printed books do become speciality items, they don’t end costing four times as much as they do now.

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