Franzen on eBooks

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.

Well, anyway.

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?

6 thoughts on “Franzen on eBooks

  1. I have a Kindle. And while I really like it, I’m still definitely undecided on what is better. Physical books are nice to look at. If you have the option of having tons of bookshelf space, why not fill them with physical books. But ebooks are great for those who are space deprived. Or who spend a lot of time away from home.

    They both have their benefits and in the future, I will continue to buy physical books when I have a compelling reason to. But I will also enjoy reading books on my Kindle and enjoy the sheer power of the words enclosed in the story.

  2. What I’ll have on my shelves is the approximately 5000 books I already own. What I’ll have on my Kindle is the hundreds of books I’ve accumulated since I got it. I love books. I own books. I love the feel, the smell, the beauty of a well-bound (which no longer exist in an affordable form) book. But what makes a book a book is the words on the page. And they read exactly the same on an ereader.

  3. What I’ll have on my shelves is the approximately 5000 books I already own. What I’ll have on my Kindle is the hundreds of books I’ve accumulated since I got it. I love books. I own books. I love the feel, the smell, the beauty of a well-bound (which no longer exists in an affordable form) book. But what makes a book a book is the words on the page. And they read exactly the same on an ereader.

  4. At this point, for me it’s a matter of text vs. graphics. Most books do just fine on my Kindle. But if there are illustrations involved, or if it’s a reference book and you need to do quick lookups, a paper book does the trick.

  5. I’ve tried ebooks.

    I’ve mucked about with the Kindle. I’ve iPadded a bit. I even have the Google Books app on my iPhone where I occasionally refer to the Collected Works of Herman Melville for my own comfort, much in the same way I refer to my US Constitution app from time to time.

    But I do not actually have the Collected Works of Herman Melville. Nor do I have the US Constitution. I have digital file representations of what these printed documents are. And these files are revisable, on my iPhone, by forces I do not know. So the comfort they provide my is illusory.

    I’ve given the ebooks a go and have come to realize that they are wholly unsatisfying – they are like a chocolate Easter Bunny in your Easter basket. You get very exited, but then you pick it up and discover it wasn’t a solid chocolate Easter bunny but a hollow one. Still, it’s a bit of chocolate, so it’s okay – it’s better than no chocolate Easter bunny – but you know there are solid chocolate ones out there, and that’s really what you’d rather have.

    E-readers are just too inherently douchey. And their proponents try too hard to prove their validity (most likely because they too know deep down that the comfort is illusory. They act like a child pretending to be exited for the hollow chocolate bunny when you can see in their eyes they were expecting the solid chocolate one).

    It’s sad that these people like to refer to digital files on an electronic device as a “book”.

    It’s annoying that they often like to refer to books as “dead tree books.”

    It’s offensive to see them use their struggling local bookstores as browsing showrooms.

    It’s angering that they don’t support local bookstores in the first place – and if you are buying ebooks, you are not supporting local bookstores.

    Books are books. Digital files on electronic devices are not books. If you love books, you love books. If you don’t, you don’t.

    But you can’t claim to love books and relegate your reading to electronic devices – because they and the content they deliver have as much to do with a book as an mp3 download has to do with a record album.

    Sadly I just can’t escape the inherent douchiness of the e-reader.

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