Books are made of win, cont’d: Information needs hard copies

Jonathan Franzen makes the case for books over e-books:

My problem with e-book readers is that one minute I’m reading some trashy website, the next minute I’m reading Jane Austen — on the same screen. 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. I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That things can be ‘whatever’, depending on the moment. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.


“The technology I like is the American paperback edition of [my novel] Freedom. 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 Franzen, who famously cuts off all connection to the internet when he is writing. […]

“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.”

Andrew Sullivan disagrees:

Of course, an eBook is likely to have a longer virtual shelf-life than a physical book that will eventually decay or fall apart. Hanging out in some iCloud somewhere, the eBook will be eternal. And also more accessible to readers. There will be no more “out of print”. You won’t have to look for hours in a second hand bookstore to find that obscure tome you really wanted to read (not that that isn’t one of life’s great pleasures – but it’s not Borders, is it?) The very old can be brand new again.

I have to side with Franzen here. Just because information exists in digital form doesn’t mean it’s permanent — in fact, quite the opposite, as many of Sullivan’s own readers point out. One brings up Orwell’s 1984 and Winston Smith’s job revising history to suit the politics of the day; if people relied exclusively on easily-altered digital information that resides somewhere in the virtual Cloud, Winston’s work would have been that much easier. Another makes the crucial point that, with e-books, you don’t actually own what you buy:

Many eBook formats, and e-reader platforms, are designed to permit publishers and vendors to exercise post-transaction control over content. Buy a Kindle and purchase ebooks from Amazon, and guess what? At a later date, Amazon (or the publisher of the material) might withdraw the book — and poof, it disappears from your device. Many of these devices also permit publishers to automatically update previously-sold works. And quite a few of these devices are designed to prevent you, the reader, from ever having effective possession of the underlying file. You can read it on the device, or even on many devices via cloud storage, but you are prevented from getting your hands on a copy of the file that you may archive and secure from subsequent revision or retraction. (And this goes beyond book publishing; Apple, for instance, is well-known for both refusing to publish apps for the iPhone/iPad/iPod ecosystem that offend its editorial sensibilities or are contrary to its own business goals, and revoking previously-published apps, effectively deleting them from customers’ devices).

Ursula K. Le Guin makes a similar argument:

As an author sharing responsibility for the state of my art, I fear control of availability (and of course content) by the corporations. Amazon’s offering only Amazon-owned books for their Kindle reader was an example. Books are not commodities, and readers are not consumers, but the corporations, cultureless, with no ethical guidelines, nothing but their own profit growth in view, will treat them as such so long as they are allowed to. A public kept in ignorance isn’t likely to even notice.

This, a thousand times this. And this ties into my argument — here and here — about the dangers of conducting the activities of the public square on privately-owned platforms. True, the contents of a book may be determined by the author and the publisher, and the dissemination of that content may be controlled by bookstores. But once you buy a book, it’s yours, to lend and copy and share as you please; and the information it contains will never change. Not so with an e-book, where information can be revised and removed for whatever reason, even after purchase.

This is dangerous. It’s true that digital media has made information much more easily accessible; but in some ways, and contrary to appearances, it has also left the user in less control of that information than ever before. Twitter has just shown that it can self-censor as the cost of doing business in multiple countries; moreover, it is perfectly within its rights to do so, and it’s under no constitutional obligation whatsoever to protect free speech, if it chooses not to. And what’s true for Twitter is ultimately true for all the electronic platforms on which we exchange and store information: FaceBook, YouTube, the Cloud, GoogleDocs.

And WordPress. They’re currently very nice people, with fair terms of service; but theoretically, there’s nothing preventing them from revising those terms to block posts or shut down sites that displease the powers that be. I’ve put a lot of time and effort into this blog, but I’m painfully aware that — if I didn’t have copies of all my posts saved on my hard drive — the words you’re reading now are ephemeral, and can easily be made to go away. By WordPress, or for that matter, by me — if I decide to edit or delete any posts, or shut down this blog entirely. You don’t own, and can’t keep, these words. There’s no guarantee that this post will stay exactly the same (or even exist at all) when you return to it tomorrow, or next month, or a decade from now. You’re reading these words at my whim, and at the whim of the company that lets me post them. Andrew Sullivan thinks this is permanent? Not a chance.

And I haven’t even really mentioned all the scenarios in which accidental loss of information can occur. If all your data resides online — or is otherwise in digital form — what happens when you spill water on your Kindle, or your Internet connection is shot, or the Cloud servers go down?

For ease of access, e-media is an undeniable boon (and one that’s obviously here to stay). But for permanence, for the preservation of history and of truth, and in order to ensure that control over data does not reside exclusively with corporations, information needs hard copies. That’s something we should never give up. And that’s why we should fight for books to survive.

Read the rest of Ursula K. Le Guin’s argument against e-books here. And more authors who feel the same way here.

(Image via VentureBeat)
1/31/13 Update: Did I mention that there’s no guarantee this post will stay exactly the same? Well, guess what — it’s not. I revisited it a few minutes ago only to discover that a video I’d linked to, showing Andrew Sullivan’s side of the argument, had inexplicably become — of all things — a compilation of scenes from zombie movies. I didn’t own that video content, and for whatever reason, it changed; I therefore removed the link, thus changing (and diminishing) the content of this post as well. So much for electronic content enduring for all eternity.


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