On Monday, the Guardian published an article in which the novelist Jonathan Franzen condemned ebooks, warning that they have a negative effect on literature, and may actually be damaging to society. Whilst I’m inclined to agree with his statements about the nature of physical books, that they are permanent and reassuring tangible objects – monuments to writers’ visions, inscribed with great works – it seems he is speaking with a certain style of book in mind. Grand traditional novels, or epic modern sagas (like his own) that are often weighted by matter equal to their significance. Very real chunks of wood and ink, displaying their age and history, bearing messages to loved ones inside covers and messy notes in the margins.
I own both the printed book of his most recent novel ‘Freedom’, which I’m currently absorbed in, and the ebook, which I had first but didn’t start, despite my anticipation to start reading. The steady stream of text on the flat, grey Kindle screen failed to engage. I remembered the amazing experience of reading his previous book, and how affectionately dog-eared it is now. It was several months before I came across a copy and lunged for it.
This and other seminal novels deserve a commitment, often countered by lengthy, trying reads (thankfully not in Franzen’s case), and having to lug heavy books around. The argument that e-readers are able to contain thousands of books is valid, but carefree limitless access to anything isn’t always entirely positive. I find making the effort to single out one book can heighten the enjoyment.
But books that are liable to be read once (murder mysteries, review copies etc), reference texts, or collections of short stories are perfect for e-readers. They also allow access to out of print texts and numerous edited versions, and of course don’t require masses of trees to be felled. People with sight problems or disabilities can read with greater ease.
Franzen chooses to block access to the internet and uses noise-cancelling headphones whilst he is writing. Other writers choose to work accompanied by music, or in busy places. Readers can choose to remain devout to printed books, or they can leap into the world of the digital. They can straddle both, using hybrid platforms.
Freedom of choice.