A couple of days ago I came across a brief piece in the Guardian from last year with the rather alarming title “Jonathan Franzen Warns Ebooks Are Corroding Values.” Corroding values?, I thought. Hurting brick-and-mortar sales, okay; giving us eyestrain, eh, maybe. But does Franzen really think ebooks make us worse people?
Bearing in mind that the purpose of headlines is to provoke you into reading further—but also knowing that Franzen isn’t known to shy away from ill-advised controversialism—I thought I’d better read the piece before coming to any conclusions.
Unsurprisingly, the headline involved a bit of misdirection (the word “values” never occurs in any of his quotes), but what the famous novelist actually did say during a press conference at the Hay Festival was weird enough, and maybe even a little creepy. After laying out a number of pretty commonsensical reasons why he considers ink-on-paper to be an important and intrinsically valuable format for conveying and storing information, he dropped the following opinions about the current and potential future social impact of the online information environment in general and ebooks in particular:
[The] kind of radical contingency [that characterizes e-books] is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.
There’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion bits of distracting noise… All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things, are dying off.
The technicians of finance are making the [political] decisions [in Europe]. It has very little to do with democracy or the will of the people. And we are hostage to that because we like our iPhones.
Now, we should bear in mind that this was (according to the Telegraph) Franzen’s first-ever press conference, and that he was talking off the cuff. An improvising amateur can’t be expected to perform brilliantly his first time out. But still, it’s worth summarizing and reviewing the assertions Franzen advances here:
- Ebooks are incompatible with a system of justice
- Ebooks are incompatible with responsible self-government
- Online publication undermines human authenticity and honesty
- iPhone users are hostages to an ongoing political coup by techno-capitalists
It would be easy to dismiss this kind of talk as passionate overstatement or to simply characterize Franzen as an outlier. Maybe it is, and maybe he is. But he’s not the only one talking this way. What Franzen’s comments immediately brought to mind was author Sherman Alexie’s infamous characterization of Kindles as “elitist” and—far more disturbing—his expressed desire to “hit” a woman whom he saw reading a Kindle on a plane. (Later he backpedaled on his blog*, sort of, admitting that what he should have said was that he saw a man reading a Kindle and wanted to hit him. So let’s be clear: Alexie is no misogynist.) Then there’s the poet and novelist Alan Kaufman, who darkly hinted at parallels between the Kindle and Nazi crematoria and then proffered this bit of historico-political analysis:
[N]ow, sixty four years after the Holocaust, the Nazi disdain for the book has become the feel-good Hi-Tech campaign to rid the world of books in place of massive easily controlled centralized repositories of book texts downloadable on little hand-held devices and from which a text can be dissapeared [sic] with the click of a mouse: in Nazi terms, a dream come true.
So whereas Alexie sees Kindle users as elitists, Kaufman apparently sees them as Nazi collaborators after the fact. (If Kaufman sees someone reading a Kindle on a plane, is he tempted to forcibly shave her—sorry, his! His!—head?)
Why do ebooks—and e-information generally—cause such teeth-grinding rage and rhetorical hysteria in some people? I mean, come on: Fantasies of physical assault? Suggestions that e-formats undermine democracy? Characterizing the ebook as a Nazi “dream come true”? These are not normal reactions, and this is not normal discourse.
I’ve seen similar (though generally less intense) responses to ebooks and, to a lesser degree, ejournals from some of my library colleagues. Among some of us there is a sense not just that we’re giving up certain benefits by migrating from one format to another—that’s a given—but that we’re trading something fundamentally good for something fundamentally bad, even sinister.
I suppose you can chalk some of this reaction up to nostalgia. As a member of the shrinking population of people who remember when libraries smelled like books, a part of me is sympathetic to that sentiment. At the same time, the part of me that remembers having to search for books in a card catalog—the intellectual equivalent of trying to find a penny in a bowl of washers while wearing boxing gloves—that part of me has no patience at all with the sympathetic part.
But what I find most disturbing is the way that the rhetoric of Alexie, Kaufman, Franzen et al. disguises elitism behind a scrim of anti-elitism. “Books saved my life,” Alexie says. “I rose out of poverty and incredible social dysfunction because of books”—by which, of course, he means printed books. His biggest problem with the Kindle seems to be that it’s expensive; that “there’s always a massive technology gap between rich and poor kids.” Which may be true and may even be relevant when it comes to certain e-reading devices in particular, but it’s an argument that goes nowhere when it comes to online information (including books) in general. What percentage of poor children has access to a decent public library collection, as compared to the percentage that has access to the Internet? If you really want to get a book into the hands of a maximum-possible number of poor kids, is encoding it into a physical document (rather than, say, making it available via cellphone) really the best way to do it?
The problem with Franzen’s “real,” “authentic,” “honest” print books is that they’re only available to those relatively few and well-off who have easy access to decent libraries and bookstores. To be clear, I don’t want to see any fewer libraries and bookstores—I’d love for there to be more. But the fact remains that the printed book is an ineffective information delivery system at scale.
As for Franzen’s and Kaufman’s dire warnings about e-formats’ corrosive effect on democracy: it seems to me that the salutary effects of massively open and instantly-distributed information pretty strongly outweigh the negative impacts of relative impermanence. If what Franzen calls “responsible self-government” depends on citizens having access to information about what their elected representatives are up to, then surely those iPhones we so culpably love are more the solution than the problem. It’s true that much of the information you get through your iPhone cannot be counted on to remain available (or unaltered) for decade, or a year, or a month. But an awful lot of it can, and even temporary access offers a tremendous benefit that can’t be made available outside of the online environment.
To some degree, arguing about this represents a waste of energy. Surely no one believes that the e-genie is going to be forced back into the print bottle. But maybe that suggests that complaining about it—and especially complaining by means of arguments that hold so little water—is a waste of energy as well. More importantly, though, I hope we don’t let miguided nostalgia or faux anti-elitism direct us away from those access solutions that will really do the most good for the most people.
* Alexie’s blog does not seem to have a searchable archive (boy, Franzen was right about the Internet’s ephemerality), but his clarifications have been widely quoted verbatim, notably and most comprehensively here.