Jonathan Franzen: e-books are damaging society
The author of Freedom and The Corrections, regarded as one of America’s greatest living novelists, said consumers had been conned into thinking that they need the latest technology.
“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,” said Franzen, who famously cuts off all connection to the internet when he is writing.
“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.
“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.”
Speaking at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, Franzen argued that e-books, such as Amazon’s Kindle, can never have the magic of the printed page.
He said: “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.”
Franzen said he took comfort from knowing he will not be here in 50 years’ time to find out if books have become obsolete.
“I’m amused by how intent people are on making human beings immortal or at least extremely long-lived,” he joked.
“One of the consolations of dying is that [you think], ‘Well, that won’t have to be my problem’. Seriously, the world is changing so quickly that if you had any more than 80 years of change I don’t see how you could stand it psychologically.”
The 52-year-old became a literary superstar with The Corrections, published in 2001, which sold close to three million copies.
The long-awaited publication of Freedom earned Franzen a place on the cover of Time magazine but also the invention of the term ‘Franzenfreude’, coined by author Jennifer Weiner to describe “taking pain in the multiple and copious reviews being showered on Jonathan Franzen”.
Fans include Barack Obama, who was so keen to read Freedom that he requested an advance copy.
Franzen said: “One of the reasons I love Barack Obama as much as I do is that we finally have a real reader in the White House. It’s absolutely amazing. There’s one of us running the US. [Although] when I heard he was reading Freedom I thought, ‘Why are you reading a novel? There are important things to be doing!’”
Franzen held a press conference in Cartagena, the first of his career (“I feel as if I should be announcing a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process”) and an opportunity for the author to hold forth on a range of topics.
On the subject of America’s economic problems, he said: “There’s no question that things aren’t going very well in the US. But I don’t think it’s specific to the US.
“I think the combination of technology and capitalism has given us a world that really feels out of control. If you go to Europe, politicians don’t matter. The people making the decisions in Europe are bankers.
“The technicians of finance are making the decisions there. 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.”
Critics have pointed to the absence of religion in Franzen’s novels and he explained: “I don’t believe in a God who’s sitting in some undisclosed location at a switchboard receiving and answering prayers.
“To be honest, I’m thinking much more about science than about religion when I’m writing. To me, art itself is a religion.”
Anita Singh, The Telegraph (Original link here)