Books and E-Books

A while back there was an article in the Telegraph with the provocative title ” Jonathan Franzen: e-books are damaging society .” I wasn’t familiar with Franzen, and the extent of what I know about him now are that John Hodgman portrayed him as Oprah’s right-hand man in That Is All , and that some of my friends who read more literary fiction than I do have described him as being really phenomenally overrated.

E-books are a challenge to the way things have worked for books for a long, long time. [1] I don’t want to accuse Franzen or other e-book haters of being luddites or whatever, and I would expect some people to dislike using a Kindle for purely subjective reasons alone. However, calling e-books a threat to civilization is a bit much. At least as quoted in the Telegraph article, Franzen explains why he has a personal preference for paper books, along with some trite complaining about the capitalism of e-book readers [2] , but utterly fails to connect that to anything of greater significance to society. Given how great of a writer he’s supposed to be, it’s rather strange that he makes such a weak argument.

The permanence of print is a great thing, but I for one don’t only read Certified Classics that I’m sure I’ll read over and over, and some of the widely praised classics are overrated anyway. There are books I treasure in print, but (for example) the book on iPhone app design I’m currently reading will be obsolete in a few years, and I’d just as soon not add that bit of wood pulp to the clutter in the basement. I also don’t have unlimited space for books–it’s getting pretty ridiculous and I’ll have to sell some off before too long–and being able to put countless books on my Kindle is useful from a purely pragmatic standpoint. It also makes it much easier to get certain out of print books, and public domain classics can be had for free to boot. When I decided I wanted to re-read The Devil’s Dictionary , I went on Amazon and got a free e-book sent to my Kindle instantly. I didn’t get a Kindle in order to do away with paper books, especially because I own a lot of RPGs, [3] but rather to expand my options. I can put smaller RPG PDFs, fan-translated manga, free e-books from the likes of Cory Doctorow , and independent weirdness on there, along with professional e-books from the Kindle store proper.

Aside from trivial details (a book is better than a Kindle at surviving getting wet), Franzen’s main argument against e-books is that they lack the permanence of paper books. The thing is that the permanence he’s praising isn’t something that just happens on its own. The majority of books published fall into obscurity, mouldering in libraries, used book shops, or trash heaps, and truth be told an awful lot of them ultimately deserve that fate. The books that have truly lasted decades or centuries have done so because passionate people made it happen. Electronic media haven’t been around as long, but the same kind of passion that’s kept Shakespeare’s works alive has also preserved the very earliest of video games for more than 30 years so far. I know I found it far easier to get a working copy of Colossal Cave Adventure (the first text adventure game ever, originally released in 1976) than the works of science fiction pioneer C.L. Moore.

A damn good book by the way.

Very few things truly last on their own. Everything is actually a cycle, an ongoing process. When I was visiting Washington D.C. I was struck by how clean and new everything looked. The U.S. Capitol Building, which Wikipedia tells me they started building in 1793, looked a lot newer and shinier than the house I live in. People have renovated it, put in new carpeting and electric lights, and probably done quite a bit of structural work too. They built the White House a year before, and in the War of 1812 British troops set fire to it, causing so much damage that it had to be rebuilt from the ground up. And yet, in the eyes of Americans it’s still the White House where Presidents have lived since almost the beginning. Likewise, the original Constitution stored in the National Archives is an important historical artifact, but it’s the words, the Constitution as enacted by the government that exists today, that really matters. Of course, Terry Pratchett got to this point years ago in The Fifth Elephant :

This, milord, is my family’s axe. We have owned it for almost nine hundred years, see. Of course, sometimes it needed a new blade. And sometimes it has required a new handle, new designs on the metalwork, a little refreshing of the ornamentation… but is this not the nine hundred-year-old axe of my family? And because it has changed gently over time, it is still a pretty good axe, y’know. Pretty good. Will you tell me this is a fake too?

There are some surviving original Shakespeare manuscripts, as well as books of his works printed in his lifetime, but given that that was in the early 1600s, they’ll likely crumble to dust if you look at them wrong. When people read Shakespeare, they’re more likely to read modern books on modern acid-free paper (or e-books), and slathered with copious footnotes to make them comprehensible to readers not immersed in a 400-year-old dialect of English. Shakespeare lives on in plays put on by modern performers with electric lights and a million other modern conveniences that Shakespeare couldn’t have dreamed of [4] . The Immortal Bard is only immortal because of the ongoing process of people printing, reading, analyzing, and performing his works. Without that, his plays would be compost or at best curiosities for collectors.

The original MacBeth had an important Scrabble scene, right?

That isn’t to say I think e-books are perfect, but then paper books had several centuries to get things in order. The big challenge for e-books right now is overcoming the industry’s insistence on DRM, which is ultimately bad for everyone concerned. I was happy to hear just the other day that Tor Books is going DRM-free , as it means that people who buy their books can put them on pretty much any device, including Kindles [5] and Nooks. It’ll also make it much easier for people to preserve their e-books for the future. If I had e-books in any of the text formats that were common 10 or even 20 years ago, at most I’d have to hunt for some conversion software to get them onto my Kindle now. Pretty much anything with DRM that old hasn’t lasted that long, and it’s a concept that needs to go away, really.

I’m kind of grateful to Franzen for being wrong in a way that inspired me to think about this stuff, [6] because there’s no shortage of things I want to keep alive, and the mere existence of a paper book isn’t good enough. When it comes to preserving the past, let’s not limit ourselves to any one format. Books are wonderful in general, and they’re still wonderful whether they come on paper or digitally.


[1] I could probably do some research to find out how long it took for book printing to become a thing, and for it to actually reach the masses in any meaningful way, but that’s a side point to this article. I do know that it wasn’t as though we went from Gutenberg to Books Everywhere overnight.

[2] As though paper book publishing wasn’t about making money.

[3] Role-playing games normally come in the form of books, but in play your relationship with the text is different enough from a novel that playing from a Kindle e-book with its limited page-turning speed would be a huge pain.

[4] And that’s before we get into stuff like the Leonardo DiCaprio movie.

[5] I’m not a fans of some of the things Amazon has done with the Kindle (there was the 1984 fiasco for one thing), but it’s kind of amazing how many people totally fail to realize that a Kindle can in fact handle quite a few open formats with ease. The only thing I wish they would add is the ability to grab files from the Kindle’s web browser as e-books.

[6] Oh, and as a bonus? Pretty much all of his books are available for Kindle.

One comment

  1. Serdar says:

    The Kinkakuji has been rebuilt many times, and each time it’s been rebuilt it’s been considered “the original.”

    A lot of the grousing about e-books being a corporate thing is also a red herring. Books themselves don’t exist for the most part without some kind of corporate backing, so putting print books on the side of purity and e-books on the side of corporate rapaciousness is pretty silly.

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