Jonathan Franzen, author and vaunted protector of the written word, has taken the side of paper in the paper-LCD wars. Fearing that no book will remain pristine when an author (or, god forbid, some authoritarian entity) can go back to edit it, and admiring traditional text-on-paper technology, he fears the e-future and the fading of traditional books.
This is similar to the crowing of people who feared that talkies would ruin movies, or that color film was going to destroy the aesthetics of filmmaking altogether. Books aren’t going anywhere, and I have some (admittedly evolving) opinions about electronic books that speak to their superiority in certain areas.
There are, of course, people who write words and words only. Authors who are brilliant with narrative, poets who weave a trail of emotions capable of elevating or breaking our hearts with a pen stroke. (And here I must note that pens are outdated technology too; I doubt that Franzen writes with a quill and inkwell on parchment.)
Me? I love reading as an act, and the books that leave me quivering with wonder are akin to sorcery, be it high scholarship and history, or a flight of fantastical lore from a time that never existed. Either way, my experience is the same: engaged.
But there are also books that suffer the constraints of words alone; books which, for whatever reason, seem to break the bonds of language and struggle for a larger telling; authors who have chosen to throw out conventional storytelling and reach for something different.
The first electronic books were for children–and to date, they remain the most inventive. It comes as no surprise that Alice in Wonderland was made into an ebook commercial because it speaks to the wonder of merging narrative with imagery: playful, surreal, joyful, slightly mysterious, dark, and edgy. It has all the elements that can make any book—electronic or paper—magical.
But is this the only kind of book that can rise in dimension with the advent of new technology?
Al Gore’s ebook Our Choice is, for example, held up as a bellwether of possibility: it shows what the ebook could be. But since it is, at its root, an educational tool, it flees from fantasy. It may have the whiz-bang of three-dimensional gizmos and embedded video streams playing out the tragedy of a superheated planet, but it relies on fact, not art, to relay the message.
But there are other books that I imagine could play out quite naturally in this new medium, including Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, illustrated lavishly and insanely by Ralph Steadman. If Thompson could have Steadman’s illustrations modified to give an even deeper sense of his deranged trip to Vegas, would he? After all, Thompson and Depp became fast friends during the filming of Terry Gilliam’s adaptation; he certainly didn’t shun the thought that the book could be made into a film. Who’s to say if he would’ve embraced the idea that Steadman could make the novel more dimensional still by adding animated visual elements to his dark and twisted tale?
Mira Bartok, a children’s author and illustrator, was shortchanged in her memoir, The Memory Palace. What should have been a full-color masterpiece is instead a book that has her breathtaking full color paintings playing second-fiddle in pared-down grayscale. I flipped through it recently in a brick-and-mortar store, looking for inspiration for my own memoir, but what I found instead was the publisher’s lack of courage or funding. And sadly, Bartok’s ebook suffered the same fate: what could have broken open the idea of “book” was instead a virtual facsimile of the paper version, a great failure of imagination. We are able to read in words the story of the Bartok’s life both with and without her mentally ill mother, but we miss the opportunity to experience it in full concert with her art.
The Griffin and Sabine series is another logical choice for the electronic medium; Franzen would be a fool to think that Nick Bantok wouldn’t want to change it for a new audience, because the technology may offer even greater access to his original vision than his already-inventive paper version.
And my favorite paperback is a richly illustrated, ornately designed collection called The Bedside Book of Birds, edited by Graeme Gibson, a.k.a. Mr. Margaret Atwood. With full-color images on every page, and toothy paper that feels lovely under my fingers, it’s a paperback that costs $35. Do I think it’s worth $35? Yes. Do I think most people will spend $35 on a paperback book about birds, even with masterful design and full-color illustrations? Nope.
But could Graeme Gibson revise it for an electronic audience? The answer is, again, a resounding yes. It would be a great electronic offering on an aesthetic level, and it could reach a new audience that missed it the first time around, in its paper release. What stingy guardian of our culture and the written word wouldn’t want that for his fellow authors?
The answer would appear to be Franzen, who fears, among other things, endless revision in the electronic era. But this is like fearing the common cold: pointless. No less than the Bible has been subject to countless revisions over thousands of years. And every time a book is translated from one language to another it undergoes revision. Aldous Huxley updated Brave New World for its 25th Anniversary by critiquing what was right and what was wrong in his classic dystopian tale.
And Jonathan Franzen, amateur ornithologist, is opposed, chirping his opinion from a very privileged perch in the literary tree. (To use the current parlance: he’s a 1-percenter.) Having already enjoyed the kinds of plaudits and financial rewards that few writers, even excellent writers, ever have the good fortune to attain, he now bashes the ebook as a threat to our cultural survival. Whether he knows it or not, his statements demean a great many people. (The 99 percent?) Fact is, most writers have to scramble into any hole and corner to find some kind of readership—and this includes the de trop ebook publication.
Franzen is, in the end, being a snob.
Clearly he doesn’t like ebooks. That’s fine. To each his own. If he hates them so much, he can refuse to have his titles published in electronic format. He can remain in his perch and continue to naysay the rest of us as the mindless destroyers of his precious culture. He can restrict himself and his holy words to the printed page alone.
But I’m guessing he’ll cash the check either way.