Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Author Jonathan Franzen: "eBooks are a Threat to Society"

A few years ago, after the dotcom boom and the splurge of new digital entertainment gadgets, pundits started speaking of the upcoming death of the book. More recently, as eBooks finally seem to take off, eBooks are seen by some as the possible savior of reading. Everyone has been reading about the Kindle and its seemingly endless incarnations, Barnes and Noble’s Nook, and the astonishing success of the iPad. If we look at total U.S. trade book sales (which include the popular categories of fiction and non-fiction in print, audio and eBook formats), then we can see these increased slightly, 6%, between 2008 and 2010 from $13.1 billion to $ 13.9 billion. eBook sales, however, as part of this total grew an extraordinary 1,300% from $62 million to $864 million!So, there is no denying that eBooks are changing the book industry. Experts and readers differ strongly about what kind of change and how positive this eBook-caused change is.American novelist Jonathan Franzen recently has spoken out against eBooks as damaging society and corroding its values. He was quoted in the British Telegraph as saying:..................

“The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom. I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it's pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model… I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience. Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change….But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”

On the other hand, novelist Tim Parks wrote a defense of eBooks in The New York Review of Books, EbooksCan’t Burn 
“In practical terms it is all too easy to defend the e-book. We can buy a text instantly wherever we are in the world. We pay less. We use no paper, occupy no space. Kindle’s wireless system keeps our page, even when we open the book on a different reader than the one we left off. We can change the type size according to the light and our eyesight. We can change the font according to our taste. Cooped up in the press of the metro, we turn the pages by applying a light pressure of the thumb. Lying in bed, we don’t have that problem of having to use two hands to keep a fat paperback open…..

“Add to that the e-book’s ease of transport, its international vocation (could the Iron Curtain have kept out e-books?), its indestructibility (you can’t burn e-books), its promise that all books will be able to remain forever in print and what is more available at reasonable prices, and it becomes harder and harder to see why the literati are not giving the phenomenon a more generous welcome.”

As a publisher of books and eBooks, I tend to see a bit of truth in both writers's views: yes, it’s great having hundreds of books available at your fingertips, especially when traveling, and your eBooks don’t occupy space in your cramped apartment or small study. But there is a limit to practical advantages. One thing I enjoy is giving books to friends and family, and watching them unwrapping the gift and actually having a book in their hands rather than “owning” some digital item in the cloud.  Also, it’s nice to have bookshelves with a collection of the books you love to enliven your home or just because it’s easy to have a look at. In short, there is more to life than just practicality and efficiency.

I also think that Jonathan Franzen’s claim that ebooks are a threat to society is not as farfetched as one might think. We have entered an era where we are bombarded by communications and data; where within several months your new cell phone becomes outdated; where customer service means a pre-recorded voice that refers you to the company’s website or offers a direct line to Bangalore, India or the Philippines; where search engines determine which “news” is important to you while more and more people miss what’s really important in society;  where your friends number several thousand who you either have never met or not talked to in ages;  and where eBook vendors are mostly oligopolistic operators. Within these ever faster technological and economic changes, I find eBooks indeed symbolic for this trend. Case in point is that eBooks have been pulled back from reader’s devices by Amazon without the reader’s approval  and that eBooks could easily be censored by vendors . Although eBooks should be just another, hopefully easier, way of reading books, and giving readers choice and flexibility, at this stage it still has many problems, both practical and societal. As long as these are not resolved, I can only agree with Jonathan Franzen once again when he says that "the combination of technology and capitalism has given us a world that really feels out of control".

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