Friday, 17 February 2012

E-Books, Jonathan Franzen and Corroding Values

Jonathan Franzen is concerned. He not happy. He is more unhappy than George W Bush was when he was informed that the deadliest chemical weapons the Americans found in Saddam Hussain’s palace was a packet of aspirin. He is complaining. He is in a grumbling mood.

Having heard Franzen on two occasions in literary programmes I have formed a view that the writer of what many consider to be masterpieces of the 21st century (The Corrections and Freedom) is an inspired and creative grumbler. He is a first rate moaner. He is one of those chaps (I think) who are forever dissatisfied with the state of things. He is the sort of chap (I think) who goes to a restaurant and moans about the cleanliness of the cutlery or the decor of the restaurant or the curtness of the waitress or the lack of choice in the wine menu (he strikes me as a chap who considers himself a wine expert but is shocked if you call him a wine expert and responds by saying he is most certainly not an expert but he does not know a lot but he knows what he likes and likes what he knows). He will go to a cinema and complain about the lack of leg space or the uncomfortable recline of the back rest. On his way out he will moan about the film. He will go on a book promotion tour and agitate that he is compromising his integrity by selling himself. During the question answer session he will be irritated by the stupid questions posed by people who, he will complain after the session, must be made to take a test before they are allowed in. If he is invited to Ophra Winfry show, he will worry that he might get pigeonholed as a writer of Chick Lit. 

Give Jonathan Franzen any subject—the invasion of Iraq, the decline of socialism, queen of England, bourgeois affectations of the bourgeoisie, right-wing press, literary awards—and he will grumble a hypothesis into being.

That is the sort of chap Jonathan Franzen strikes me as (from the two literary programmes of his that I attended, during the entire period of which I kept my mouth shut as Franzen read out from his books, and with great forbearance attempted to answer stupid questions from people who ought not to be allowed within a five mile radius of a literary programme.)

I was therefore not surprised to read in The Guardian and in The Telegraph that Franzen is not impressed with the craze of e-books.

Franzen is not impressed with e-books. They are not the Real McCoy. The serious reader, Franzen claimed, while speaking in a literary festival in Columbia, wanted a sense of permanence. Handling a book, a ‘real object’ according to Franzen, is an essential part of the reading experience. This experience of ‘handling a specific object in a specific time and place,’ explained professor Franzen, is as essential to reading as Garam Masala is to an Indian curry. Can you make an Indian curry without turmeric and ginger-garlic paste? You can, but it won’t be an authentic curry. What is the point of eating a curry that does not burn your tongue? You might as well eat toad in the hole.

What is wrong with e-books? Professor Franzen explains: ‘A screen always feels like you can delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it is not permanent enough,’ he says.

Franzen will not read e-books. Forget it, he won’t do it. You have more chances of persuading Julian Assange to wear a condom while having sex with Swedish women than of convincing Franzen that it is not possible to delete (or change or move) e-books.

Maybe no one will care about books in fifty years time but Franzen does. Will the books  become obsolete in fifty years? Regrettably Franzen is unable to enlighten you on the matter; because he does not have a crystal ball. But if the books do become obsolete in fifty years, he will console himself with the knowledge that he will be dead by then.

In the Hay Festival Franzen also lamented the fact that ‘the combination of technology and capitalism that has given us a world that really feels out of control.’

So, to summarize: (1) Jonathan Franzen does not like e-books. (2) Joathan Franzen believes that e-books do not impart a sense of permanency. (3) Jonathan Franzen believes e-books represent the worst aspect of technology and Capitalism. It is not the unrest in different parts of the world or the clash of civilizations (as one mendacious British prime-minister put it to justify his war-mongering) that has given us a world that feels really out of control; it is the Kindle editions of The Corrections and Freedom (that’s right, both of these Franzen novels are available in electronic format) that are to be blamed for the disturbing deficiency of reality in our world. (4) Jonathan Franzen believes serious readers should avoid e-books with the alacrity of an upper caste Hindu who has spotted a lower caste person from fifty yards. (5) Jonathan Franzen thinks he will be dead in fifty years.

I consider myself a serious reader. I take my reading very seriously. I read literary fiction about which I talk to my friend John when I meet him once a week (over an authentic Indian curry), and try to convince him that there is more to reading than Lee Child and Jack Higgins. I can rattle out all the Booker Prize winners in the last 25 years, and I am learning the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (a much longer list). I order books of Nobel Prize winners and place them prominently on my bookshelf. I can speak for ten minutes non-stop on the magic realism in Salman Rushdie’s novels and how he might have been influenced by the magic realism of Mikhail Bulgakov. I have managed to read the first 25 pages of Gravity’s Rainbow without becoming comatose and I tell myself every few months that I ought to read Ulysses. Last month I bought at a second-hand book-fair Goethe’s Faust: Part 1 and 2 (one pound each).  I am seriously considering ordering all the novels of Jean Paul Sartre, and I am outraged that Philip Roth has not yet won the Nobel.

I think I have said enough to prove my credentials as a serious reader of serious fiction.

Have I got a Kindle (or any other e-reader, such as the Sony e-reader)? No I haven’t.

My friend David bought a Sony e-reader last year, which, while it is thirty pounds costlier than the Kindle Fire, is far better value for money (he claims) because Kindle apparently does not allow you to borrow e-books from your local library, but Sony e-reader does.

‘Kindle is a rip-off,’ David declared. ‘Amazon wants you to buy books from them, and that’s why they don’t allow you to borrow e-books. Don’t bother buying Kindle.’

I assured David that I wouldn’t bother with Kindle.

‘Buy Sony e-reader, the best value for money,’ David advised.

I had to disappoint him. I told him that I had no intention of buying a Sony e-reader either.

‘Why?’ David gave a very credible performance of initial incredulity and incomprehension, followed by dawning comprehension, succeeded by dismay that quickly mutated into withering contempt. ‘Don’t tell me, you plan to stick with physical books,’ he spat out the words along with a half-chewed cardamom pod in the chicken biryani we were sharing in the local Indian (with two male waiters sporting moustaches the size of an adult rat hovering in our vicinity, in case we decided to order extra poppodums; we didn't).

Now, if I had read the Guardian article, I could have told David that e-books did not give me a sense of permanence; that I liked to have a specific object in my hands at a specific place and time; and that e-books made the world unreal, even though I did not fully understand how they did it.

But I had not come across the article in The Guardian when the conversation with David took place. So I merely said, ‘I like reading books.’

‘Physical books are dead. They are on their way out. In fifty years no one is going to read anything other than e-books.’ David delivered his verdict on the future of books (not very different, clever readers will have noted, from that of Jonathan Franzen, except that David would very much want to be alive, unlike Franzen, to see that day).

‘If I am alive in fifty years time, and in control of all my faculties, and books are really obsolete by that time, I shall happily read e-books. However, I don’t expect to be alive in fifty years. I have a family history of heart disease and high blood cholesterol. I fully expect to die in the next thirty years. Thirty five at tops,’ I gave David my own prediction.

‘I gave Sue a Sony e-reader for Christmas,’ David said. Sue is David’s partner. A pointy woman with insubstantial chest and prissy little opinions. And a snob. She reads Jane Austen and George Eliot, which she thinks makes her cleverer than me because I read Jonathan Coe. I am confident that she won’t be able to tell the Booker Prize winners in the past five years, let alone twenty-five; and I will bet my mortgage that she has never heard of Jean-Marie Gustav Le Clezio who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2008.  

‘And now Sue will not read anything except e-books,’ David continued. ‘When Sue was converted to e-books, I knew the books were finished. No one would want to read books anymore.’ David gave me a challenging look.

‘That is axiomatically untrue. I am sitting right in front of you and I read only books.’ I took David’s challenge.

‘What have you got against e-books? Why wouldn’t you give them a go?’ David appealed to me, spreading his arms over the table, palms upwards, for emphasis.

The thing is I have nothing against e-books. I have even read a book on Kindle. Another friend of mine lent me his Kindle over last Christmas and I read a book (written by an Australian chancer about how to build up a property portfolio and become a millionaire in less than a decade, accumulating eye-watering debts along the way, and repeating to yourself the mantra that your property is going to quadruple in value in seven years. You can always hang yourself when the things begin to unravel). It wasn’t too bad, I have to say. However, the resolution of the screen was not the same as a paperback (although considerably better than a laptop and reading it did not tire my eyes). The Kindle on which I read had a smaller screen than your average paperback. The navigation was a bit slow.

As far as I am concerned, Kindle or other e-readers don’t offer any advantage over physical books. True, Amazon has cunningly priced Kindle editions of books at a level lower than that of paperback editions. Which means you stand to save money if you buy Kindle editions of books instead of paperbacks. However, if, like me, you borrow books from the local library and don't buy them, you save even more money. I don’t really see the advantage, unlike my friend David, of Sony e-reader, which allows you to borrow on-line from the library without having to go there to borrow or return books. That is because I don’t mind going to the library (and neither should David seeing as his BMI is in the range of clinically obese), but mainly because the e-books collection in the local library is meagre; not a single one of the last fifteen books I read was available in the library in electronic format. True, all these books are available on Amazon in Kindle editions. But here is another thing. Of the fifteen books I read, only one (A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan) had a ‘repeat value’ for me. I wouldn’t mind having this novel in my collection (it has also won the 2010 Pulitzer award for fiction), and I shall buy a paperback rather than Kindle edition (but not from a high-street book shop or Amazon. I am sure that in a couple of years, if not earlier, I shall see the novel in second-hand book shops. If I don’t spot it, I won’t bother. I have read the novel. If I am suddenly consumed with an overwhelming desire to read it again in future (though I doubt it) and if I haven’t still got it in my collection, I can always borrow it from the library.

Another alleged advantage of e-books is that you can take as many as you want when you go on a holiday, whereas paperback books will clutter your suitcase, which you could otherwise put to good use by packing them with cheap wine you buy on the continent.  Maybe if you go on two month-long holidays at a time and your speed of reading is such that you work your way through two books in a day, e-books will be an advantage over paperback books (although, if all that you are doing on a holiday is to bury yourself in books, one might wonder whether you couldn’t do it at home). When I go on a holiday, it is never more than a couple of weeks, and I read a book a week at most.

So, I won’t buy an e-reader any time soon. Not because I am not a serious reader (I am a very serious reader. I am currently hand-to-hand struggling with Michael Frayn’s memoir, My Father’s Fortune, which, I won’t lie, is a bit heavy going; but I will not give up; I will continue with my struggle until the book finishes or my life ends (whichever is earlier). This shows my commitment to reading.) I won’t buy an e-reader because I think it is a waste of my money. I don’t need it. I am very happy reading paperback books. I do not think they put a strain on my resources.

Jonathan Franzen doesn’t like e-books because he believes they are corroding values. Perhaps he will put his money where his mouth is, and not allow his novels to be available as Kindle editions.