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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