Jonathan Franzen hates technology

Ok, maybe that is taking it a bit too far, but he clearly opposes the mingling of books and technology. I guess he doesn’t want publishers, booksellers, and authors to make more money. He also doesn’t want more people to read. In the LA Times last week, Franzen tried to develop an argument against ebooks:

“People who care about literature care about substance and permanence. The essence of electronics is mutability and transience. I can see travel guides and Michael Crighton novels translating into pixels easily enough. But the person who cares about Kafka wants Kafka unerasable. […] Yes, in theory, words are words, but literature isn’t data. The difference between Shakespeare on a BlackBerry and Shakespeare in the Arden edition is like the difference between vows taken in a shoe store and vows taken in a cathedral.”

Well this is just ridiculous, for the following reasons:

1) Just because something is electronic doesn’t make it anymore lasting than words in a book. If a piece of writing is deemed worthy of permanence in our society, it will naturally be preserved through reprints and reproductions, regardless of where the original text came from. Original texts from Shakespeare? Missing. Yet we still read his works because society as a whole has bought in to the idea that his plays and poems are worth reading. Is Jonathan Franzen worried that his own work might not stand the test of time?

2) Where is Franzen drawing the line between books that are acceptable to read electronically and ones we absolutely must read in print? Apparently he is proposing that we make some kind of distinction and prevent “literature” from being distributed and read in electronic formats. Clearly his own books must be preserved in print only.

3) Who cares how someone reads Shakespeare? With competition like Perez Hilton and YouTube out there, we’re lucky anybody still cares enough to read him! Isn’t it better to have more people reading through a variety of media rather than a few people reading printed books?

4) Franzen said himself, “words are words.” Well, I don’t really see how you can argue against that. We absorb the information the same way. Shakespeare takes your breath away even on a screen. “The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch” (Shakespeare, Othello, I, iii). Admittedly, I got a few goosebumps reading quotations online while looking for this one. Words work no matter how you read them.

5) We should expand, rather than limit, the ways people can read. Just because one person prefers dusty tomes over BlackBerry ebooks doesn’t mean another person might prefer the ebook. Give them their books!

Jonathan, would it really be that offensive to you if someone read The Corrections on a Kindle?


Author: Hannah Johnson

When I first came to New York City, I almost ran over Liza Minelli with my suitcase. Then I got a job in book publishing.

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