Author Jonathan Franzen Thinks That Ebooks Mean The World Will No Longer Work

from the charter-member-of-luddites-anonymous dept

It’s sometimes entertaining to see people who have lived in a particular world for a long time get totally freaked out by new technologies. Such is the case of famed author Jonathan Franzen who seems absolutely horrified by the concept of ebooks. Why? Because digital just doesn’t feel permanent enough for him:

“Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. 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…. Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”

Of course, that makes no sense. But, even more bizarrely, Franzen extends this out beyond ebooks to suggest that if they become more common the world might not work:

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

Honestly, I’m not sure what to say about people so out of touch that they think something as simple as an ebook might destroy society… other than perhaps they’re wedded to a medium for purposes of nostalgia rather than based on any sort of rational thinking.

Even worse, he seems to be making a correlation between such technological advancement and problems in government and assuming they’re linked directly:

“If you go to Europe, politicians don’t matter. The people making the decisions in Europe are bankers… The technicians of finance are making the decisions there. It has very little to do with democracy or the will of the people. And we are hostage to that because we like our iPhones.”

Of course, I’d argue exactly the opposite. It’s the fact that people are now starting to use technology to push back in serious ways that suggests that the ability to communicate and make the will of the people heard is what is going to hopefully lead to governments that really are more responsive to the will of the people. We’ve seen that starting to happen with the protests against SOPA, and hopefully that’s just the beginning.

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Comments on “Author Jonathan Franzen Thinks That Ebooks Mean The World Will No Longer Work”

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Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Maybe nobody will care about illuminated manuscripts 50 years from now, but I do … Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they spent hundreds of man hours copying it out by hand and filling it with unique graphical and typographical touches. A printing plate always feels like we could lose that, change that, move the metal type around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.

Cloksin (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Jump forward 50 years when e-books are the norm and some newer technology (whatever that may be)is looking to replace them

Maybe nobody will care about e-books 50 years from now, but I do … Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they spent countless hours typing it out, editing it, moving paragraphs from here to there before they finally hit the save button and made the read-only copy available to the masses. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.

Scote (profile) says:

Re: Cute, but which will last longer?

Which will last longer? The illuminated Book of Kells? Or some ebook?

Mike claimed that what Franzen wrote “makes no sense”. That is not so. Mike *disagrees* with it, but it does make sense. Ebooks are effemeral, adjustable, different from printed books. I enjoy both. Printed books for many of the reasons Franzen notes, and ebooks for their flexibility. But what are kids going to find when they explore Grandma’s attic in 100 years? It used to be you’d find nick nacks, photos, books, letters–tangible things that require no technology to access. But in 100 years, an atick might have some broken, DRMed iPods, iPads and readers with inaccessible ebboks and email–and that is just the stuff not lost to the Cloud.

We will inarguabley loose something as more and more media becomes solely electronic. We lose permanence and tangibility as we gain flexibility and ease of access.

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:

Re: Re: Cute, but which will last longer?

Yes, but in the future what will kids find when they explore Grandma’s server in the attic???

Amazing lost relics: 2d jpegs! Old ebooks (DRM free, amazing!), “bootleg” music, email backups, twitter dumps, things which couldn’t reasonably exist in a tangible form–but will exist as data.

Quick favor, can you do the “electricity will lead to the murder of women” one? That’s an oldie but a goldie… I just love faulty vacuous arguments which are obviously false but somebody vehemently defends & believes in the nonetheless…


Machin Shin (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Cute, but which will last longer?

Well I have to admit there is some truth to electronics not being as perminant. Most consumer electronics are not built to stand the test of time. They are only built to last a few years before the user moves on. If you toss an Ipod into storage and come back in 20 years what are the odds you will be able to use it? By then USB will likely be gone, the battery will have long ago failed, the memory even could have failed.

A book in storage will last many many years if it is not exposed to the elements. So in a lot of ways better. It can also survive the collapse of society where as all these other devices are useless if the power grid were to go down for good.

I’m not saying that I’m against e-books though. I love them for their ease of use. It is great to carry a library worth of books in my pocket. I just see the good in both e-book and real books.

I for one still love the feel of a good book in my hands and enjoy the smell of books as well. E-books do loose some of the magic of a real book. Physical books often end up being special to me in that they bring back memories. They each have their own history and story. It is hard to really feel that connection to a digital file.

:Lobo Santo (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Cute, but which will last longer?

It comes down to the person & situation.

For example: I happen to have a burgeoning digital song collection–which I’ve added to and maintained for going on 20 years, across about 8 computers and some 20 hard-drives.

And yet, despite the come-and-go of hardware, my collection remains intact. How? Backup your data. Save early, save often…

Other people have 1 copy of their song, and it’s saved on their iPod. When the iPod dies, they forget they owned it… it just comes down to the person.

Machin Shin (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Cute, but which will last longer?

Yeah, this is very true. If you keep moving your collection to keep it with the times then it can last forever. I personally enjoy a mix of e-books and physical books. This is just a personal preference though. I still just love to have a physical copy of books that I enjoy. I’m not going to try and force that on anyone though. It is all just a question of what each person enjoys more.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Cute, but which will last longer?

There’s a bit of a point here. In a digital medium, what’s important is that the file format is preserved as well as the work. It’s kind of like a book in an unknown language, but with the added issue of the file format on top of the language/context interpretation problem. If you’re talking 50 years, it’s not that hard of a problem to solve, but if you’re talking 1000 years, it becomes much more interesting. You need a self-describing format or some other way to match the format to the file on top of something like the Rosetta Stone, not to mention the normal problems of deteriorating media (paper, CD-ROMS, memory sticks, etc.) Who knows if an intelligent creature of the future would even identify these objects when looking right at them? Sorry, not particularly germane to the conversation, but interesting to me! 😛

TtfnJohn (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Cute, but will anything REALLY change?

Actually, it’s very germane to the conversation and not the first time the notion that data, be it books or music could be locked up behind some long forgotten file format either.

Before we hold the wake for the printed book let’s remember that for most of us books are almost as temporary as iPods. Your great aunt gives you a paperback for Christmas. Maybe you read it, more likely you don’t. It may get stuffed up on a bookshelf somewhere and then promptly forgotten.

I know many people, myself included, who still have the expensive books I bought for courses at college littering the bookshelf landscape. I might have read a tenth of them for classes the rest, it always struck me, were things the prof had us buy so we or he could look important.

I go back to very few of them. But there they sit, taking up space like some sort of icon which no one pays attention to anymore or believes in much. Books, have the added advantage of being fuel should the house ever catch fire!

Quite frankly going through my parent’s and grandparent’s attic was more a chore than a journey of discovery. Looking at papers I could hardly read, books I’d never heard of and never want to hear of again (see “penny dreadfuls”) some photos of people I never met or knew of often in stiff, formal positions with smiles or glares pasted on their faces.

Some pictures from World War One and World War Two but nothing that hadn’t been photographed to death and then some.

My folks stored old coffee table books in the attic. I have no idea whether it was the coffee stains or high quality bond that attracted at least two families of squirrels to rip them apart of make nests out of.

A book or record collection can, of course, be the journey of a person’s life. What they liked, how their tastes changed and their political journeys. But unless you knew that person completely meaningless.

Oh yes, and the two or three generations of report cards no one ever wanted to see again.

What is important about a life if obvious, or ought to be, and none of it is the brick-a-brack we all collect through life. IBM punch cards, 5 1/4″ disks which long lost their data, the PCJr stuffed in a corner which made another home for the attic squirrels.

Authors still labour over their works. Getting the right word here, the right phrase there and the odd swear word. Whether or not the publication medium is print, an ebook or an illuminated manuscript some monk spent half his life working on. None of that will change.

When the typewriter came along there was much worry that books and stories would lose “something” because the writer wasn’t scratching away long hand on cheap paper. I’d argue that never happened.

And I bet when funny figures on papyrus started to get churned out by those Egyptian types the people of Mesopotamian shook their heads darkly and said that would never last. Cuneiform on clay tablets was the ONLY way to go! It had a different feel, It had weight and the small danger you’d drop it and shatter it into a billion pieces.

The printing press itself caused worry. Would people work as hard on their books then they could be duplicated in their thousands? Just write for the masses not the aristocracy. All the masses wanted was sex, drugs and rock’n’roll anyway.

The world we know is coming to an end and this MUST, somehow be stopped!!! Burn the ebooks! All this is too important! What will I find in Granny’s attic after she dies?

Probably much the same. Some pictures of her as a pretty young woman, perhaps a love email or two she printed off for some reason, your parent’s report cards and perhaps your own. That damned PCJr is still in the same corner because no one wants to expend the energy to even throw it out. A printed book or two. Ebooks that haven’t seen a new battery in decades. A collection of favourite recipes. Boxes of Christmas ornaments,mostly broken. Perhaps a two century old Christmas Cake so filled with rum that there’s no green stuff growing out of it.

And, oh my god, who’d have ever thought that bent over, granny who never, ever smiled that you can remember was all that beautiful and had such a wonderful smile and mane of light brown hair!

One world comes to an end, a new one begins.

Funny how granny’s attic still has all the same stuff in it, Isn’t it?

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Cute, but which will last longer?

Two things:

1. Paper doesn’t last forever either. (Although some paper has lasted longer than electronics has even existed.)

2. You point out why open formats are important. Open formats are the only formats likely to have longevity. Your iPod’s DRM encrypted files may not work in 20 years, but I predict that mp3’s still will.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Cute, but which will last longer?

1) To expect immortality is unreasonable, but it’s still better than a shorter lifespan. This Bible is 1600 years old.

2)Open software formats are only part of the issue. We also need openish hardware and a profit motive to provide it to future generations.

WysiWyg (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Cute, but which will last longer?

1. Yes, because it has been reprinted so many times. The only difference here is that “reprinting” a digital file is much easier, you just make a copy.

2. I don’t think a profit motive is necessary. You don’t think that there will be “hackers” in the future?

(“Hackers”=the type of person that just want to know how things works, and make it work better by as an example remove DRM.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Cute, but which will last longer?

Shy of IBM punch cards none of that would be hard to access. I guess not everyone has a 5 inch drive laying around though. Maybe a good market for this in the future, accessing old technology people inherit.

But, the reason most of the keepsakes from our grandparents are on paper is because they were not submerged in electronic devices like we are. Its not because paper is more permanent its because not so much of their life was on electronics.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Cute, but which will last longer?

Ever fired up an old hard drive and been delighted at the mysterious folders of collected junk you’d forgotten all about?

Books decay. And books can be destroyed. In many ways they are less permanent, because permanence now comes from replication. If the Library of Alexandria burned down today, we wouldn’t lose half the Homeric epics – there would be thousands or maybe millions of other copies in existence, on servers and devices in locations all over the world.

I also love books, and sometimes I have similar thoughts as you. But I really think that’s my context and my prejudices coming into play just because of what I’m used to…

So to answer your question, I’d say there probably will be extant electronic copies of the Book of Kells long after the original has crumbled to dust.

DannyB (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Cute, but which will last longer?

Yes, replication is what causes permanence.

Problem: the copyright maximalists don’t want replication. Based on the kind of collateral damage they already do and openly state that they are willing to inflict, I don’t think they would care one bit if all of the Homeric epics were lost in a single fire.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Cute, but which will last longer?

Agreed – but that’s a separate problem to do with copyright, not something inherent to the formats.

Indeed, copyright maximalists are causing problems with physical formats too: the reason a lot of films are being lost is that nobody is legally allowed to digitize them thanks to orphaned copyrights, even though in many cases there are parties ready and willing to do it.

Curmudgeon says:

Re: Re: Cute, but which will last longer?

I agree with some of what you say but disagree vehemently with your spelling choices.

It is ridiculous that Franzen compares ebooks to the financial crisis besetting Europe (proof that just because you’re good at one thing doesn’t mean you’re good at another, or even have a reliable grasp on reality). That being said, there is a kernel of truth to his anxiety, which is that as we transition to consuming traditional media in digital format, preservation is a big problem, and most corporate content producers have absolutely no interest in preservation. Preserved works in the public domain actually compete with their content. Better for their shareholders that it rot.

Marcus Carab (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Cute, but which will last longer?

preservation is a big problem

But preservation is a big problem for physical media too. As we speak, films are crumbling in vaults and old books are being incinerated to clear shelf space. It seems like the challenge of preserving digital information will be lesser, or at worst equal.

I hate to have to post this link because if you are a lover of books, history and culture then it will make you sick to your stomach (seriously… it’s painful… but kind of a must-read, because it’s the reality we live in)

FTA: Imagine holding a beautiful, dusty, illustrated volume of Shakespeare printed in the 1700s, a calligraphic message from its long-dead owner inscribed on the inside cover, and throwing it straight in the trash. I’ve been there, more than once.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Cute, but which will last longer?

I think of what I can pass on to my children just by handing them my hdds someday and it amazes me. Never lost to a flood or a house fire but all my work for decades in a neat little package. Photos of their mother and my friends my whole life on 3.5 inches. So screw a whole attic full of old boxes.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Cute, but which will last longer?

The funny part is that when people need to backup that old stuff they come calling the pirates, I mean the hackers that are able to dump that stuff and make it readable again.

PDF showing Sega hired MAME developers to be able to reuse their old stuff.

Also what happens when you get a world where everyone carries the library of congress on their pockets?

Anonymous Coward says:

Here is the thing, today I read more than I have ever read before, and I read a lot, so I can only assume that this internet thingy is making more people read, you see, people don’t like live chats for some reason is to personal and the entire web is mostly about reading things, if anything, it is setting the foundations to create a kind of literature renaissance, all this kids today forced to read all their gibberish on the interwebz are people learning and getting used to written language in a natural way that will feels good and they will improve their reading with time(hopefully) and explore others things.

That is why I believe reading will be there in 50 years I don’t know about books, maybe every person on earth will be carrying the equivalent of the library of congress with them by then, and then it will be knowledge that will be resilient, the more copies out there the less likely that knowledge will be ever lost unless we suffer some sort of global extinction event.

Mesonoxian Eve (profile) says:

“So for a literature-crazed person like me, it’s just not permanent enough.”
I concur, old timer. The second DRM servers are shut down, literature is not permanent enough.

But we sure don’t need dead trees to maintain the works. Just remove the DRM and those works last forever.

Well, until ICE/DoJ takes down the internet.

Okay, you’ve convinced me. Let’s rape another rain forest for another Twilight saga.

Machin Shin (profile) says:

Re: Re: GAH!!!!

Also even if we were killing rain forests for paper maybe should blame all the useless things done with paper before going after books. Like how about mass mailing, credit offers, bank and credit card statements, checks, those magazines that are nothing but ads, 90% of warning tags, and many other things. Paper is wasted all over the place all the time. Printing off books is not the worst offender.

crade (profile) says:

I don’t get this one.. The guy is just stating his opinion. You say the first quoted paragraph “makes no sense”, but it does. It clearly says the authors thinks is that printed text “feels” more permenant to him than text on a screen does. How can explaining how something feels to you make no sense?

The second part is not a prediction that ebooks will cause no one to care about permenance, but a hypothesis that *if* no one cared about permenance there would be problems. There is nothing in the quote at least that says whether he thinks ebooks will cause this, or if they are both potential symptoms of another cause, or even if he thinks this will happen at all without some other, larger reason than ebooks coming along.

The quoted last part is just ridiculous.. lol

AJBarnes says:

Hooray for choice

If that’s what he likes and wants to buy, the good for him. At some point, it will become cost prohibitive to pay for a printed book and then he’ll have to face a choice consumers make every day… Assuming he won’t have what he wants is somewhat dumb at this point. Plus, doesn’t he want to save a tree so he can hug it?

Scote (profile) says:

Re: Groan...

A book is merely the expression of ideas. If ideas can’t be destroyed then books can’t be either. Someone could always “recreate” the book if they could think of it, just as they could rediscover a lost idea.

The fact is that if you destroy every copy of a book or every written version of an idea, you can effectively destroy it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be re-invented.

GamerLEN says:

I will admit I grumbled a bit about the first kindles, but that’s because I spent a lot of my childhood in bookstores and libraries and a kindle renders those places into either specialty stores or totally obsolete. Still, I didn’t start saying that they’d cause the end of civilization as we know it.

Hell a kindle is a damn amazing invention that lets someone carry an entire library around with them in a backpack, I just feel a small pang knowing that stuff like that will cause some of my favorite stores to go the way of Borders, but such is the price of progress.

Anonymous Coward says:

I think advocates of traditional books have a few points. You don’t lose them when a device fails, you can loan them out, they never expire, you ran read them in the bathtub, and they don’t break when you drop them. By sticking with traditional paperbacks, we get to avoid so many of the problems of DRM and intellectual property.

To each his own of course, but I plan on sticking to paperbacks for the foreseeable future.

weneedhelp (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“You don’t lose them when a device fails” – Yeah but I have 70 copies so it is not an issue. Try that with a paperback.

“you can loan them out” – 🙂

“and they don’t break when you drop them” – Cuz paperbacks never deteriorate.

“we get to avoid so many of the problems of DRM and intellectual property.” – DRM? Non-issue… for most of us.

To each his own.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“”You don’t lose them when a device fails” – Yeah but I have 70 copies so it is not an issue. Try that with a paperback.”

But do you have 70 kindles? Do you have a guarantee you can download what you bought to the new one?

“”you can loan them out” – :)”

LOL. Forgot where I was posting. I do kind of like it here.

“”and they don’t break when you drop them” – Cuz paperbacks never deteriorate.”

They do deteriorate, but at a much slower rate than technology(if not abused). And thats not even taking into account different media and formats. Keeping up with the above can be just as expensive as continually buying the same media over and over.

“”we get to avoid so many of the problems of DRM and intellectual property.” – DRM? Non-issue… for most of us.’

Right, because you’ve legally purchased DRM free books. Right? :-p

weneedhelp (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I AM a hardware geek. I have 3 Macbook pro’s (2- 17 inch dual core i7’s, and an old 15 inch dual core duo, an HP-XW6200,6400,XXXX and the last one escapes me right now. An HP8440p/6930p(wife), IBM T40, 42, & 43, Motion Computing M1200 tablet, A custom built gaming rig, a Dell Inspiron 17 (N7010), and I am sure I am forgetting a whole bunch of stuff, and I am not including stuff that has been shelved for non use. The xw6200 has a RAID5 setup with 5-1 terabyte drives.

“Do you have a guarantee you can download what you bought to the new one?” – If I cant run it I dont buy it, and if I do, I get my co-worker to download it DRM free from the newsgroups.

“They do deteriorate, but at a much slower rate than technology” I still have porn from my dial-up days when I was a noob… still looks good.

“Right, because you’ve legally purchased DRM free books. Right? :-p” – Hell no, I am a freetard lovin dont wanna pay for anything, share it with the world pie-rate. /s
Sure. You like DRM free?

I am still buying DRM bloated games though. Good thing I have a machine for that sole purpose. 🙂

Books are nice, but I will guarantee my kid will still have every e-book I have when she reads at that level.

Have a great day:)

DH's Love Child (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Right, because you’ve legally purchased DRM free books. Right? :-p”

I do. I either get them DRM free to begin with (you do realize that there are a TON of legally available DRM free ebooks out there, right?), or I buy them with DRM and strip the DRM. I end up with 2 copies, but DRM’d version was legally purchased.


Re: Re: Standing the test of time.

> Cuz paperbacks never deteriorate.

Compared to “technology”, they don’t.

The current tech that everyone is so enamored with hasn’t been around long enough to prove itself. Every single person that is so eager to get rid of paper probably has some right now that’s older than the oldest personal computing platform.

Pips says:


I agree with the man on some level. Technology has become a burden in the fact you need to embrace it or be left behind. Some people simply don’t want an iphone. They don’t want an ebook. There will soon be no world left for them to exist in. Much like cowboys liked to ride their horses across the plain, they now have to drive cars if they want to go get groceries.

It is kind of depressing really unless you absolutely love technology. I used to love it, back in the late 70s and early 80s. When Commodore and Atari were king, and the Internet was available only through college. Now it all seems warped and perverted beyond anything I could ever imagine. I’d tell you to get off my lawn, but it’s all dug up right now for the fiber optic lines they’re laying.

JayTee (profile) says:

His physical copies which he loves so dearly over a 50 year period are likely to decay and generally have a much higher potential for damage with each use…pages accidentally becoming ripped for example. Even the most careful of readers might have a moment of madness and drop a glass of water on their book or whatever.

E-books however could be backed up numerous times if you wanted such that if one copy is destroyed…just go get the other one.

And if he loves having physical articles to grab from bookshelves so much then he can even back up books on multiple hard drives or kindles and stack those on the shelves… just for the “thrill” of having something physical in your hands.

Logic deficit seems to be a real problem in our times.

Greg Nelson (profile) says:

Trade-Offs Matter, Defaults Matter

Few things are all bad or all good. Other comments show how Mike highlighted Amazon deleting 1984 copies across Kindles. Amazon could also have rewritten 1984 and who would have known. It was only easy to tell the book was missing.

There are trade-offs in robustness of copies to external influences and physical decay vs. ease of copying, distribution, and updating. It would be nice if there weren’t, but, as Feynmann said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Electronic copies degrade faster than paper. Since they are easy to copy, you can make new copies to new media to get around degradation. However, this takes effort and does not usually happen by default. Cloud storage promises to do this as long as someone pays for it, so reliability of copies becomes that of the cloud service. This centralization creates points of failure not distributed across independent geographic locations and people, whereas distributed physical copies that are not networked, such as paper books, do not. As long as our devices are networked, our copies are not independent unless secure (and DRM is just a form of intentional dependence). It used to be that the dominant way of distributing information, by default, created many independent (not networked) physical copies. This is no longer the case with electronic distribution. In exchange, it’s easier for anyone to distribute content. Let’s hope technology to enable easy distribution without giving full control of our devices over to central authorities dominates and gives us the good of easy distribution and copying without the bad. I think this is hard or impossible without truly distributed networks, like wireless mesh networks.

Before, if someone found information important enough, the first way of distribution was by word of mouth, then books, with a high barrier of entry. By default, many independent and self-sufficient (given someone has been taught to read and is not blind) physical copies would be created and distributed, often with very long decay times. Many independent robust copies not requiring other technology besides your eye balls and a brain does increase the chance for that information to survive. It’s a natural trade off that these are harder to create than digital copies. Maybe that extra robustness is worth it for some information, particularly the ones groups tend to want to erase, such as history. Then again, if I’m used to the ease of ebooks, why would I bother reading & finding such copies, maybe they’d just sit unread, like much history.

I agree that if a single group could rewrite all copies of some content, it would make justice and a free society difficult, since they could delete anything that threatened them. This seems to be the idea behind some of Franzen’s hesitations. Whether ebooks and general digital distribution of information may, may not, or must lead to that, Mike addresses at the end, saying these distribution technologies enable people to push back against groups trying to gain such control. He gives one example, the SOPA protest. It would be awesome to have a full set of examples of technology enabling tyranny or working against it as fuller context. Do you have something like that Mike?

jupiterkansas (profile) says:

As someone that just moved boxes and boxes of books, I will happily say goodbye to all of them. Put it all on a hard drive or the internet and get rid of the weight.

They sit on the shelf for years, finally get read, then sit on the shelf for many more years. I’ve got books that sat on my parent’s shelves before I was born sitting on my shelves now still unread. I eventually had to murder my book buying impulse knowing I already have enough books to read for the rest of my life. Books are just decorations, or something to make people think you’re smart.

Tom Teshima (profile) says:

Franzen has a point, but he does sort of go off the deep end. Preservation of digital material is a huge problem. Look at all the data saved by NASA on old mag tapes. Look at all the old music on vinyl that never got transfered over to cds, much less mp3s (at least not legally). That material is in danger of being lost forever. Then think off another 50 years, and probably 10-15 generations of different electronic devices and formats. Printed books have the advantage of not having to be updated and transfered. Think about all the family photo albums saved as jpegs, and what will happen to them as formats change and devices become obsolete. Franzen is wrong to blame ereaders for the problem, but there is a problem with long term storage of digital information. Information lasts as long as someone is attentive and updates it to new formats. Once it gets forgotten and stuck in an old corner somewhere, it may be lost to future generations.

Joe Perry (profile) says:

I think people are misinterpreting what he means by permanent. He means permanent in form, not in existence, at least that’s how I take it. A physical book is a finished product, something that can’t be changed, it is final and complete, to be consumed as intended. Digital things are transmutable, what you buy might not be what you own in a few years if they decide to change things, even without DRM.

To Franzen each book on the shelf is something which can be cared for, something personal that he can become attached to and that only he can own/alter/appreciate, unless he allows others to do so. He feels a digital book is just something in the community that you access.

I sympathize with his desire for true ownership, especially with the way companies treat their products and customers. Sony removing the ability to install alternate operating systems on the PS3 is just one example of this.

I’m not saying I agree with his ideas about it being bad, personally I prefer things to be able to constantly evolve and improve, but to say he makes no sense is a rude dismissal and it sets the tone of the article to one of negativity and disrespect. What he is talking about might not be the way of the future, I believe digital ownership will become more prevalent and useful than physical ownership in time, but it’s not wrong to feel sentimental about the things which define you as a person.

Anonymous Coward says:

illuminated manuscripts high tech

In an Associated Press article some time ago called “Scientists debate whether technology changes brains” I was struck by this quote: “More than 2,000 years ago, Socrates warned about a different information revolution — the rise of the written word, which he considered a more superficial way of learning than the oral tradition. More recently, the arrival of television sparked concerns that it would make children more violent or passive and interfere with their education.”

The Moondoggie says:


“Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable?”

I do. But that is why we make technological advancements: to make sure every record of human intelligence is portable, versatile and will survive and outlive its creators.

We made the flash drives, so you can store more in a secure place.

We made 10-bit video technology for MKV files, so you can have more quality for less space.

We made PDF, so that flash drive you carry now is able to store a goddamn college library.

Your phone plays music, movies and takes pictures.

And you can create infinite copies, provided you have space for them.

Technology ever changing = Permanence.

Slomo76 says:

Something to his rant

I had an early e-book a couple of years ago. I had paid for & downloaded a dozen books in only a few months- then it broke. I lost everything I had paid for, including the ones I hadn’t read yet. Now I’m back to buying every book I intend to read, that way I know it will still be there when I want to read it or re-read it years later.

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