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Prophet or Luddite?

31 January 2012

11:31 AM

31 January 2012

11:31 AM

Much ado about Jonathan Franzen’s appearance at the Hay Festival in Cartegna, where he sounded-off against eBooks, technology and corporate capitalism. The Guardian reports that Franzen said:

‘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.’

This is well-trodden ground: the permanence of print versus the transience of digital. Franzen says that the printed words in a book are ‘just right’, which implies they cannot be
amended. That reveals a lot about his self-confidence, and perhaps explains why nearly a decade passed between the publication of The Corrections and Freedom. Franzen’s friend Jeffrey Eugenides is
another author who takes an eternity to write a book, and he never stops editing. Indeed,
he usually alters the original text when reading his books to an audience. Permanence is a rather elusive idea.

Franzen is not averse to technology; but he is contemptuous of those who are distracted by it, and wary of its effects on society. ‘The combination of technology and capitalism has given us a world
that really feels out of control,’ he said.

It is very tempting to mock this Luddism, especially as Franzen’s helpless cries echo those of Enid and Alfred Lambert — the ageing suburban grotesques he drew in The
. But the internet-publishing phenomenon might be an unstable beast. The writer Ewan Morrison worries that an internet publishing bubble is forming. He writes:

‘All of this ebook talk is becoming a business in itself. Money is being made out of thin air in this strange new speculative meta-practice: there are seminars, conferences and courses
springing up everywhere.

‘There’s another name for what happens when people start to make money out of speculation and hype: it’s called a bubble. Like the dotcom bubble, the commercial real estate bubble, the
subprime mortgage bubble, the credit bubble and the derivative trading bubble before it, the DIY epublishing bubble is inflating around us.’

Morrison highlights chancy self-publishing; but established publishers are increasingly committed to eBooks, their hands forced by the constraints on the traditional market. (Paul Torday wrote about his adventures in new media for the Spectator at the end of last year.) The Christmas
sales figures suggest that print sales may soon be outstripped by digital. High street
booksellers and printing houses, fighting the Amazon tide, are in discussions with American chain Barnes&Noble over its eBook tablet, the Nook. And Apple worked with education publishers to produce their eBook programmes for schools and universities.

Morrison’s fears about a bubble may be exaggerated, but there’s little doubt that the fortunes of eminent publishers are entwined with those of the digital economy. I
wonder how permanent that future will be.

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