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Jonathan Franzen is wrong: the digital age is making us smarter
Tue 7 Feb 2012
Jonathan Franzen says the e-reader is a threat to our very systems of justice and self-government. He couldn't be more wrong

In the last few years of his life, Charles Dickens went on the road for a punishing schedule of public readings, which certainly hastened his end. In her magnificent biography, Claire Tomalin describes how he dragged himself from venue to venue, alone except for the retinue of characters in his head – lame, poorly fed and dreadfully tired, yet with an urgent need to communicate with his readers.

These readings, the precursor of the modern literary festival, remind us that the primary business of any novelist is still to connect. They came to mind last week when the American novelist Jonathan Franzen was speaking at the Hay literary festival in Cartagena about the e-reader, which he said threatened the sense of permanence found in the printed book. He went on to suggest that this loss of permanence might eventually prove "incongruous with a system of justice and self-government".

I am all for taking shots at Amazon and its popular Kindle, because the company is showing the unmistakable ticks of the power-mad monopoly, but Franzen was talking nonsense and was being a mite precious to boot.

If the printed word were the guardian of all democratic values, how is it that the country where, in 1439, a goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberginvented the movable type printing press succumbed almost 500 years later to a totalitarian hell, in which books, and the knowledge in them, were suppressed with a relatively small number of bonfires? Ink on paper is no more a guarantor of good government than oil paint on canvas.

So we need to tamp it down a bit: the e-reader is not the barbarian at the gate; governments become corrupt and civil society is lost for other reasons.

What I guess Franzen is complaining about is that people using e-readers may not bring the serious attention to a book that he applies in his writing, which is famously undertaken in conditions of monastic rigour that exclude an internet connection. Like many, he believes that we have become shallow readers, less able to focus on the deeper meaning of books and are the worse for it.

This orthodoxy about our attention-deficit is not proven, but the obvious point is we still have a choice between screen or print, which is likely to remain, because people will always take pleasure in reading a work on the page, admiring the paper and typefaces (admittedly rare), marking a passage, gauging how long to the end of the chapter or book, lending it or giving to a friend, taking it down from the shelf again, remembering exactly what that book meant to you when you first read it and being surrounded by your books, your taste, your history of reading.

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The Guardian




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Thu 29 Mar 2012
I read reviews lrgaely for two reasons. The first is if I'm uncertain I want to purchase a book; the second is to help reflect upon it. While my subscription to The New Yorker lasts, I read their reviews, but don't find them useful for consumer advocacy, nor stimulating for reflection. I also browse the NY Times Book Review and whatever friends link me to around the web. Most reviews that I read are written by amateurs at Goodreads.com. I go there because, while they're seldom holders of PHDs in Lit. Theory, they are candid about what they liked and saw as worthwhile in the books, usually with much less pomp and filler than major magazine reviewers. Sites like Goodreads also have the advantage of letting you respond directly to the reviewer, stimulating conversation with him/her. The quality of top-rated reviews on such public sites are a gamble. If they fail me, I'm more likely to flip around for the professionals again. In both professional and amateur settings I prefer longer reviews, though that length should be warranted by substance. Another attraction for Goodreads is that if people don't have much to say, they'll stop. Tragic as it is for book review sections to shrink, it often seems like their writers don't mind wasting space with biography, trivia and unnecessary plot description.I enjoyed that video. More entertainment than review, but it was novel. It reminds me of something I deeply wish the books press had. In the videogames press many journalists don't take themselves too seriously and will host podcasts that last well over an hour discussing industry news and the titles they've been reviewing. Giantbomb.com runs a weekly podcast of this sort, and their discussions serve as secondary reviews, listening to well-versed critics going into their personal experience with less defenses than they have on the page. It can be jocular, but haven't most of us been jocular about our passionate fields? I've never heard reviewers discuss books with similar enthusiasm. The critical level remains, but more relateable personality shines through. It's the best part of discussing books with friends, and the most crucial part missing from mainstream criticism, barring when someone hates a book and goes off the handle ripping into it (which is the least appealing part of their personality for me).
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