I have a confession to make. It’s one avid readers might find hard to believe, especially coming from someone who, after sixteen years working a variety of jobs in all industries and sectors, describes his now practically defunct career as a bookseller as his favorite work ever, and yet it’s the one I come to: I’ve never read Jonathan Franzen.
If your first reaction is “Who?” followed by a move to read something else in your Reader, hold on a second, because this isn’t about Franzen, and really, it’s only about reading in the most general way.
Any, honestly, the first paragraph is a lie anyway. I’ve read sixty pages of Franzen’s The Corrections — this past week, matter of fact — which was pretty much to the point where I realized if I kept reading the book, I was going to drag his character Chip out of the pages of the book and beat the asshole to death with, well, I don’t know – I don’t have a baseball bat in my apartment. I guess I could drop a ton of books on the guy, if he’d be considerate enough to stand still long enough for me to do so. Goodness knows I don’t have enough quality wine in my apartment to encourage him to stick around.
A few weeks ago a friend asked me if I was at all interested in going with her to see Franzen speak at an event sponsored by the PEN/Faulkner foundation at the National Cathedral. I said “Sure!”, truthfully, less because I’m interested in Franzen, and more because I’m interested in her.
Until tonight, this is what I knew about Franzen:
1. He and Oprah had a spat over her including The Corrections on her Book Club. At some point, they made better, and she put Freedom (his first book in nine years) onto the Book Club again.
2. Franzen was on the cover of Time last year.
3. He likes to write about people on the toilet. I know this via The Washington Post’s book critic Ron Charles, courtesy of this video.
So after a few hours eating up and down Wisconsin Avenue, we made our way to the National Cathedral, took our seats, and sat through a 30 minute reading and a 30 minute Q&A. I was really tempted to smack a guy two rows ahead of me who flagged down a microphone, then instead of passing it back to the event manager, gave it to his girlfriend. You two know who you are, and your questions were laaaame.
What wasn’t lame was a question someone asked him about electronic verses print books. I’m paraphrasing here, because I didn’t have a pen with me, but he said that books in their physical form were just nice objects to have around. And that while sure eBooks for textbooks or other research material might be just fine, there’s something reassuring about a physical bound book. That a physical bound book is the embodiment of a rock carving.
I’ve made this point to folks who’ve embraced eBooks: look, someday? You might be wealthy beyond all imagination. You’ll have a nice fancy apartment, or a big huge mansion. And maybe somewhere in your home you’ll have a big library with a gorgeous brick fireplace, huge windows, and decoratively carved mahogany bookshelves. Luxurious chairs and tables will create wonderful reading nooks. But those mahogany bookshelves? What exactly are you going to have on them?