the e-book that will destroy the world

According to Jonathan Franzen, books are vital to the continuation of civilization, just as long as they're not in digital form because e-books will destroy the sum total of knowledge.
reading ebook
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Unbeknownst to those of us who think that e-books are a promising new format that streamlines distribution, allows writers to go from draft to published product faster, and introduce new writers to the world by lowering the risk a publisher has to take to release a new novel, or allow the web to pick out the ambitious writers who self-publish and are actually good at what they do, it turns out that the e-book will not only kill the printed word, but threaten our societies’ very existence. Just ask writer Jonathan Franzen, who apparently believes that the format simply cannot and should not compete with traditional paper and ink literature because the fate of the world depends on us being able to feel the weight of a tome rather than an e-reader when we read…

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. 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. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.

Whoa, back it up, back it in, where the hell do we even begin? If there’s a more of a you-damn-kids-get-off-my-lawn moment than that, I haven’t seen it yet. Widely read Luddites like McKibben and Carr are also threatened by modern technological advancements, but while McKibben frets about comic book science and Carr was merely threatening us with web-induced ADHD, Franzen foresees the end of democracy itself because we’re reading e-books. Aren’t you just ashamed of yourself? Shouldn’t you run out and buy those permanent books that won’t suddenly change on you when you open them again? Besides, what books need to change? Once you write a book, there’s no need to update it ever again. Unless it’s a textbook and new scientific findings will require an adjustment in important facts and figures, necessitating new editions. Or it’s a current events book published days before a world changing event alters a narrative it’s trying to convey, and risks making it pretty much irrelevant from the moment it hits the shelves. Certainly fiction would be fine without having to be edited again and again, but non-fiction doesn’t have such luxury, and being able to update important facts on the fly if needed would be a huge plus for writers and publishers. But don’t tell that to Franzen. Change scares him.

And just out of curiosity, if permanence is what’s needed to make government and law to work, why have bills and lawmakers in the first place? Had governments across the world worked according to Franzen’s logic, I’d argue that we’d still be living under hereditary monarchies because the first written traditions and sets of laws for each country would’ve been drafted, approved, set in stone, and only enforced. Since that’s not the case in any nation and laws are adopted, struck down, and updated constantly, the sanctity of permanence espoused in his opinion on the matter doesn’t actually exist. Basically, e-books are new, unusual, and different from any previous format to which Franzen is accustomed but he feels compelled to justify his dislike with something a little more than “it’s new” not to seem like a member of the old fogey squad, so he reached for new heights in hyperbole. The result? He actually comes across not just like an old fogey, but a paranoid old fogey at that. To tie a digital book format to the end of democratic rule and government as we know it and claim that being able to change a book’s content leads to anarchy is to hop into the Hyperbole Mobile, then race it off a cliff, pushing the pedal to the metal the whole way down. In this case, honesty would’ve been the best policy.

# tech // ebooks / luddism / society / technophobia

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