Positive Cynicism – Tiresome tirades about e-books

Aaron Davis

Aaron R. Davis

I read Jonathan Franzen’s rant about e-books this week, and I have to say, if everything he writes is this tiresome and unclear, there’s probably not much chance of me finally sitting down with The Corrections.

I see that e-books are the latest thing that’s destroying the charm and tradition of America, according to the hipsters and self-appointed intelligentsia, preciously defending what basically amounts to a personal preference as though it were the last stand of humankind against the oppression of the machines and needless technology.

Now, the hipster argument I understand and dismiss out of hand, because it’s mostly just about how important the tactile experience of sitting with an actual book and reading a slim volume of young adult fiction apparently is. Hipsters just enjoy the appearance of hanging out with books and think that somehow equals a love of literature and the actual experience of reading. That’s why Tumblr is littered with pictures of DIY bookshelves or stacks of books feng shui’d into designs and shapes: because reading is important. Or saying you love books or something is important, whatever.

Hipsters just love being seen with old shit. That’s all it is. They want things to look deliberately outdated — excuse me, retro — because it apparently makes them smarter. Or more aware of old pop culture trends or something. I mean, they have Instagram, which only exists to make new pictures look like old Polaroids, because why develop a genuine hobby and spend time tracking down the cameras and the old film packs when you can, you know, not make much of an effort? If you had a hobby, you’d just be some jerk-off hobbyist putting effort and passion into something, and apparently effort and passion are seriously uncool.

Anyway, on to the self-important intellectuals like Jonathan Franzen, who must spend as much of his time thinking of publicity stunts as he does planning to write yet another in America’s endless series of novels about dysfunctional families.

I honestly have no idea what he’s trying to say other than that he hates e-books and that they’re destroying America somehow. I have no idea how, but that’s okay, because neither does Jonathan Franzen.

Franzen: “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.”

Okay, so, after plugging his own novel in a totally-not-self-serving way, he then claims that capitalists hate books and that books are a bad business model because, what? I guess because they never need to be replaced? He’s really wrong on three counts here. First, water can totally ruin a book, it just depends on how bad the spill is. Second, capitalists like anything that anyone pays money for. And third, if no one ever needed to replace a book, they wouldn’t still be printing the Bible.

Franzen: “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. Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball.”

Well, at least there’s something he admits to not knowing.

Is permanence part of the reading experience? I don’t know. For me the most important part of the reading experience is the actual reading of the words. I really don’t understand — really, truly don’t — how the experience of reading an e-book is fluid and changeable. But if Franzen really thinks books are permanent and unalterable, someone needs to quietly disabuse him of this notion, or at least teach him what the word bowdlerized refers to.

Books are altered all the time. Not only can they be altered by printers and publishers, but hell, they can also be altered by fire, time and ink. Have you ever seen those pictures that go around on the Internet that are supposed to be all arty and deep that are just someone’s book with all but three or five words blocked out by scads of ink? So not only does that waste ink and paper, it also alters someone’s paragraph into a statement about, I don’t know, how awesome pizza is or something.

There are also these book sculptures now, where someone takes a book and hacks the pages into the shapes of mountains or dolphins or some such, which seems like a pretty big fucking alteration to me. I’m sure the author of any book would prefer you read what he wanted to say instead of using it as material for a forest scene. (Oh, because books are dead trees, I get it, it’s ironic and shit.) To me, that’s worse than changing the author’s point, but at least it’s someone being honest about how their love affair with the written word is much more decorative than anything else.

Seriously, it’s like watching someone abuse someone else’s kids. How this is more romantic and vital than reading words on a monitor screen, I don’t know.

Franzen: “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.”

I’m sure this wad of bullshit sounded great in Franzen’s head before he used his mouth to shit it into existence, but I honestly have no idea what he means by this. Because we have e-books there will be no more justice in America?

Franzen: The Great Gatsby was last updated in 1924. You don’t need it to be refreshed, do you? Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring. Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”

Seriously, what is this guy talking about? I know he’s all smarty-smart and I’m just some blogger, but come on, man. How about saying something that, I don’t know, sounds like you worked really hard on getting the language just right?

I can’t believe I’m saying this to a National Book Award-winning author, but could you work on your clarity, please? On the one hand, he seems to be just griping about change and progress like a lot of people do when they hit a certain age and see something they personally wouldn’t want becoming popular (“You kids and your Justin Biebers!”). But on the other, more insane hand, he seems to be seriously talking about the advent of a piece of technology as though it’s going to lead to the direct downfall of American freedom … somehow. He can’t actually offer the logical connection between “I’m agginst it!” and technology toppling all of our humanity, but he’s just so damn sure it’s there.

And to make sure we all know it, too — and before breaking from that topic to make sure we all know how much of a Franzen fan Barack Obama is and making one of his pretentious art-is-religion testimonials — he went to all of the trouble of arranging a press conference, because what better place to decry the modern ease of communications than appearing before the entertainment media? Because that’s not a mixed message at all, gathering journalists together to use their technology to more quickly spread the word that technology is dangerous.

And there are a lot of hipsters and pseudo-intellectuals out there holding this up as an important and sobering message of the dangerous evils of technology and progress … on the Internet.

Because we live in a world where it’s very fashionable to brag about how you cut yourself off from the noise of the media by not owning a TV and refusing to read a newspaper … on the Internet.

And it’s also very hip to say that a person having alternative, maybe even easier access to reading somehow cheapens the very precious experience of showing the world how smart you are … on the Internet.

So, yeah, I get that Jonathan Franzen thinks Jonathan Franzen is pretty awesome, but do we really need to pretend that a personal preference in reading habits is a political statement, hipsters?

Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at samuraifrog@yahoo.com

  1. nix February 7, 2012
  2. Joel Murphy February 7, 2012
  3. nix February 7, 2012

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