Jonathan Franzen: E-readers are 'damaging to society'

Jonathan Franzen, the author of 'Freedom' and 'The Corrections,' calls e-readers incompatible with 'responsible self-government.'

Stringer/Colombia/Reuters
Speaking at the Hay Festival in Colombia, Jonathan Franzen had harsh words for e-books, saying they are 'not for serious readers.'

Jonathan Franzen doesn’t want you to read his bestsellers on e-readers. The acclaimed novelist of “Freedom” and “The Corrections” launched a tirade against e-books at a recent literary event, calling them “not for serious readers” and “damaging to society.”

Franzen was speaking at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia, when he sounded his battle cry against e-readers, harsh shots at technology now heard ‘round the book world. 

“The technology I like is the American paperback edition of ‘Freedom,’” Franzen said at the Festival. “I can spill water on it and it would still work! So it's pretty good technology. And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model,” said the novelist who famously cuts off all connection to the Internet when he writes.

“I think, for serious readers, a sense of 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 like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.”

Franzen isn’t the first to come out against e-books, but he may be the first to have attacked them so damningly, as incompatible with justice or responsible self-government. He went on, explaining that he felt reassured by paper books’ permanence and distrusted the constant possibility of change in an e-book.

“Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do,” Franzen said at the event. “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.” 

This isn’t the first time Franzen has spoken out against technology, notes the UK’s Guardian. He’s known for sealing off his computer’s ethernet port to prevent himself from connecting to the Internet while he writes, asserting “it’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

He seems to have injected that critique of technology in “Freedom,” too, voiced by character Walter Berglund. “This was what was keeping me awake at night,” Walter says in the novel. “This fragmentation. Because it’s the same problem everywhere. It’s like the Internet, or cable TV – there’s never any center, there’s no communal agreement, there’s just a trillion bits of distracting noise…All the real things, the authentic things, the honest things, are dying off.”

Not surprisingly, his comments have elicited pushback.

Responding to his complaint that “A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around,” the UK Telegraph’s Tom Chivers writes, “Does he think that e-publishers will surreptitiously edit classic works? Perhaps sprinkle Beowulf with Starbucks adverts, or weave party political messages subtly into the text of Jane Eyre? In all honesty, I suspect that this is an example of a very clever man using his considerable brainpower to dress up unconscious prejudice in what sounds like reasoned argument. Mr Franzen doesn't like e-books; he prefers reading books. But he can't simply say as much, so he wraps it in a layer of talk about 'permanence' and 'responsible self-government'.” 

We tend to agree with Chivers. Franzen seems to be masquerading his own relative Luddism by disparaging technology and those who use it, including many serious bibliophiles, as “damaging” and “not serious.”

What do you think? Does Franzen have a point?

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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