Jonathan Franzen's in the news again, this time talking about how e-books are chiseling away at the foundations of civilization as we know it. Absurd, isn't it? That the author of two of the better regarded novels of the past decade (give or take) would be concerned about how you read his books. The problem, according to Franzen, is manifold. E-books and digital readers are a con designed to rob you of money that you could otherwise be spending on paper books; e-books are trivial non-objects that you cannot hold and fetishize; print books are durable ("I can spill water on it and it would still work!" he is quoted as saying); and, most perniciously, e-books are supplanting the gorgeous permanence of book-books. "But I do fear that it's going to be very hard to make the world work if there's no permanence like that," Franzen said. "That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government."
Right. So. Read that again. That free copy of Moby-Dick you downloaded to your Kindle with the full intention of one day maybe starting to read it — that copy of Moby-Dick is the harbinger of some liberties-trampled nightmare world. Somehow.
Look. I think Jonathan Franzen is a talented novelist. I loved Freedom and The Corrections. I thought The Twenty-Seventh City was pretty damned good. But, whatever. People are allowed to say silly things. But can we please, please, please get past the e-books versus print books thing? Please?
There's really no need for a discussion about the technology any longer. Readers like the Kindle and Nook are great. They work. They're cheap. You can put a lifetime's worth of books on one — including a ton of public domain classics for a buck or less each. You can cobble together a virtual classics bookshelf for less than the cost of a round of drinks. Amazing.
Of course e-books aren't perfect. I am a scribbler, and you cannot scribble in the margins of an ebook. Not all books are available in digital editions (Martin Amis' Money, for instance, and most of Saul Bellow). E-books do not allow you to advertise your literary affectedness on the subway. And then there's the matter of all those barren bookshelves, in your home and at the soon-to-be-closed local independent bookseller.
Here's the thing: you don't have to be a print book person or an e-book person. It's not an either/or proposition. You can choose to have your text delivered on paper with a pretty cover, or you can choose to have it delivered over the air to your sleek little device. You can even play it way loose and read in both formats! Crazy, right? To have choice. Neither is better or worse — for you, for the economy, for the sake of "responsible self-government." We should worry less about how people get their books and — say it with me now! — just be glad that people are reading.