Jonathan Franzen, in his first press conference in forever, told his audience of bibliophiles, the press corps, and hipsters that he hates e-books. E-books aren’t for “serious readers,” Franzen said. “The technology I like is the American paperback edition of Freedom,” Franzen remarked.
Full disclosure: I hate Jonathan Franzen. I first encountered the literary wunderkind when I read The Corrections, Franzen’s novel of the American Mid-West, in 2006. I’d heard so much about him from serious, literary people that I bought the novel and Franzen’s memoir How to Be Alone before I’d even read them–a luxury for a recent college graduate. I wanted to be serious and literary, to make my mark on the word scene, and I figured I ought to see what all the hype was about.
I hated The Corrections with a passion usually reserved for tourists and other slow walkers. I hated his portrayal of women most of all. The mother was a two-dimensional, overbearing caricature. I don’t even remember the other women’s names; I only remember that they were hyper-sexualized and I hated them. I never got to How to Be Alone, and when Freedom came out, I refused to read it on principle.
Which is probably why Franzen’s argument against e-books and their readers has me so fired up. If it was, say, Jeffrey Eugenides, who comes from the same school of writing as Franzen but whose work I love, who said that e-readers aren’t for serious writers, I might dismiss the claim. I might even agree if an author like Barbara Kingsolver, whom I adore, had levelled the charge, comforting myself with the knowledge that I was the exception.
But it was Franzen who said that I, who love my nook, am not a serious reader. And that I must take umbrage with.
Franzen’s first charge was that e-books are ephemeral–the technology won’t work in a few years, so they are inherently less stable than physical books. I suppose he is ignoring the fact that nearly all books (maybe even all books?) come from a digital copy before they’re printed. So while the final medium of reception might be different, the version of Freedom I won’t read and the version he lovingly refers to as his technology of choice are, in fact, the same thing.
Franzen’s second argument is that authors work for a long time to get their ideas perfect, and that putting those ideas on paper makes them immutable. He quipped, “The Great Gatsby was last updated in 1924. You don’t need it to be refreshed do you?” Does Franzen know what e-books are? They’re electronic versions of books. Not new versions, digital versions. I’d contend that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a more damning sign of the literary times than the e-book. (For the record, I think things like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies are delightful reinterpretations. I’m just saying you can see how people would hate them.)
But here’s the real reason this diatribe against e-books has officially killed any hope of any relationship between Jonathan Franzen and I: E-books and paper books are not mutually exclusive. You can like both. I like my nook. I like that I can buy books from the convenience of my home or anywhere else I happen to be. I like that sometimes books are cheaper on my nook. I like that I don’t need to bring a million books with me when I go on vacation. I read 10 books last summer in Europe. Do you know what that would have cost me in baggage fees? But I also like reading paper books. I like marking up text and dog earing pages. I like savoring the feel of a new book’s cover and I like the smell of a book I’ve read on the beach. I like my well-worn copy of The Great Gatsby, but I also like having constant digital access to it via the nook app on my iPad.
The world isn’t black and white, e-book or paper book. It can be both, Jonathan. I’m thrilled so see students with e-readers in my classroom, because it means they care enough about reading to purchase a device to help them do it. But I’m also thrilled that a few girls have passed around the same well-worn copy of The Hunger Games, because it means reading has brought them together. I’m all for anything that gets people reading, J-Franz. As an author, shouldn’t you be, too?