Why Jonathan Franzen needs to stop worrying about e-books
In case you were hoping that some high-profile person could grossly misunderstand the supposed e-book "debate" that was settled years ago, Jonathan Franzen will not fail you. Speaking at the Hay Festival in Colombia, he trotted out the old "I can spill water on it," argument for why a book is better than an e-book. You may remember this argument from years ago, when people were bemoaning e-books because they couldn't take them into the bath with them, or because they don't smell as good as a printed book. He also says: "“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."
Ignoring the barb lobbed by the schoolyard nebbish—"serious readers"—there is simply nothing to this argument. When no one was sure if anyone wanted to read a book on an e-reader and there was a general hysteria that books were going to stop being printed once e-readers were common, there was something to this opinion, or at least it held sway in the unknown. Now, in 2012, with Kindles and Nooks and Sony E-Readers and iPads and Fires all around, it's an airy appeal to the fetishist. The thing Franzen doesn't understand is that the activity—the act—is most important, not the commodity—or the book. Certainly, no one would claim that Web TV has regressed the art of television, that YouTube has made Oscar nominees less valuable or that podcasts have done anything but revitalize a moribund interest in radio.
That's not to say that there aren't questions to be raised about the value of the e-book, and just how good of a job it's done in increasing reading (there are some signs that it might not be as strong as we like). But I tend to think Paulo Coelho has it right, in not only embracing e-books, but recognizing that the distribution advantages of electronic media actually increases the value of print. And after the Oprah kerfluffle, the Ben Marcus dust-up and now this, it's so incredibly difficult to come down on Jonathan Franzen's side on just about anything.
And in related news, Lawyers for the Creative Arts is hosting a one-day conference called "Pen to Digital Press: DIY Publishing in the Digital Age Symposium", exploring the issues around copyright and ownership in digital publishing. Someone spot Franzen a lanyard (Franyard).