Set Words Free: On E-Books, Jonathan Franzen, and the Book Itself

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.

—Jonathan Franzen

Recently, novelist Jonathan Franzen said that e-books lack a sense of permanence. That with a screen, we can delete, revise, and move things around. And from what I gather from his words in the quote above, he cherishes that intersection between the physical and the mental—the relationship between the book itself, the words it contains, and the moments one shares with them. As a reader, I love each unique experience with a book, not just with the story but the physical object, which I take along on journeys, thumb through when I seek inspiration or long to revisit something I’d felt before, or simply admire on my shelf.

But there’s another view on e-books that I find intriguing and exciting, one beautifully expressed in “E-books Can’t Burn” in the New York Review of Books (which I came upon thanks to Alexis Madrigal’s Atlantic post). The piece, in favor of the e-book, enters a whimsical realm—yet muses deeply, seriously—and has created wonderful images in my head. In it, Tim Parks says things far more inspiring than anything Franzen has uttered on the subject.

Parks ponders literature as a medium, comparing it to other art forms:

Unlike sculpture, there is no artifact you can walk around and touch. You don’t have to travel to look at literature. You don’t have to line up or stand in the crowd, or worry about getting a good seat. Unlike music you don’t have to respect its timing, accepting an experience of a fixed duration. You can’t dance to it or sing along or take a photo or make a video with your phone.

Literature, he writes, is made up of words—spoken or written—at any speed, and in any font. Only the order of the words are fixed, but everything else about the experience can be changed:

The literary experience does not lie in any one moment of perception, or any physical contact with a material object (even less in the “possession” of handsome masterpieces lined up on our bookshelves), but in the movement of the mind through a sequence of words from beginning to end.

Parks says the literary experience is “pure mental material, as close as one can get to thought itself.” The e-book, then, pushes us even closer to the text; it creates an even purer experience, stripping words from the tangible. And so, I visualize letters pulled apart in mid-air, twirling and entwining, engaged in a dance. I sense new life in these letters, and the words the letters create, and the sentences the words create, and feel myself waltzing on the same plane as the ideas themselves because that static, one-dimensional barrier between us is now broken. The pieces of paper are dissolved, and I see letters everywhere. I see words, freed, which—for the time we live in—feels more intellectually vigorous, and appealing, than “permanence.”

Shelves of old-school Harper’s in the F. W. Olin Library at Mills College.

Franzen seems to scoff at this freeing of words, or maybe he fears it: a surfaceless world where his prose merely swirls, no longer obedient, no longer tied to its maker. I am reminded of the idea expressed by technology bloggers that once you post your work online to be consumed, shared, retweeted, and churned through the Internet, it no longer belongs to you.

Yet even though I embrace this idea that an e-book may create a different, perhaps more vivid literary experience, I don’t think any less about the book itself.

* * * * *

This week, I also came upon a lovely piece by Emily Keeler in the Toronto Standard about the redesigning of books. She discusses re-releases of classic literature with fancy new covers, like The Secret Garden and Emma and the works of Fitzgerald, with pretty embroidery and gold leaf and deco design and all. But while these collectible and gift editions are aesthetically pleasing additions to a home library, are they necessary?

Keeler writes that these elaborately redesigned covers are “a perversion of design’s ability to occasionally pull something from the past into the present”—that the repackaging relegates these novels into “static and easily consumable images.” She continues:

Basically, it sucks to produce new books without making them part of the time we actually live in, it sucks to trap these stories in physical nostalgia, even if they were written in the past.

I hadn’t thought about book redesign in this way.

I think about the novels that have moved me deeply in the past, and recall where I was, or how I was, at the time I read them. But I leave that literary experience where I found it, and if I read the story again, I create a whole new experience, given the context of my life, and given the person I have become. It is the same piece of literature, but my response will be different.

So the book as “physical nostalgia” seems strange, and almost wrong—why bottle up a literary experience? Or, is that really possible seeing that much of the experience is shaped by who we are at a specific moment? An attempt to redesign and revitalize produces, instead, a stagnant pool of ideas and emotions. There is something backwards about it all. It may be comfortable, but too safe.

Proust in the F. W. Olin Library at Mills College.

And I think about Franzen again, and the reassurance that the book brings. The beauty and intimacy of the object, the moments and sensations tied to it. The book is a symbol of power and timelessness, but also longing. I love the bond I can create with a story, or how a book means so much because it is exactly what I needed to read at a particular moment in my life. Books are, and will always be, special in this way.

But an e-book is unfamiliar. Wild. And thus, exciting. How can you surf a website like The Atavist, for example—which publishes nonfiction stories for digital devices like the iPad, the Kindle, and the Nook—and not be intrigued by these new ways of telling and reading stories?

Books. E-books. Pages. Screens. I am open to everything: to turning and swiping, to revisiting and longing. But also to experimenting and, yes, dancing with words.

A wonderful time to be writing and reading, it is.

Published by Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Senior editor at Longreads / Automattic

20 thoughts on “Set Words Free: On E-Books, Jonathan Franzen, and the Book Itself

  1. I was once in Frantzen’s camp on this issue, that e-books were somehow a prostituting of literature, a violation of some tacit law I’d not properly defined in my head but knew, if transgressed, would mean the eroding of art and all things meaningful. Then I bought a kindle, man has that been a conversion of damascan proportions. I am now an e-book zealot, I mean a real fanatic, I tell everyone the disservice they are doing to themselves, their friends and family, to the very fabric of humanity, by not owning one. Mostly this only proves how fickle I am, but the other thing I’d say is that it evidences something more, something to do with the transcendence of thought, speech and word – there’s something so unspeakably pure about it that it cannot really be confined nor polluted by the artefact that conveys it, because the artefact is not it’s medium, the mind is, as was so eloquently expressed in those quotes from Tim Park you mentioned. I guess in a way literature is an experience you’d almost have to count spiritual, and because of that kinda incorruptible. Lovely to have that put properly into words by this piece as it’s something I’d never thought about before yet it felt, as I was reading this, like being somehow reminded. If that makes sense. Really cool piece. Thank you.

    1. I guess in a way literature is an experience you’d almost have to count spiritual, and because of that kinda incorruptible.

      Well put — I agree. Thanks for taking the time to leave some thoughts here, on a post I’d written a while ago that still resonates with me (and, as I see here, with others, too).

  2. Interesting discussion on textuality and the physical/virtual forms of the book. It reminds of something I was scanning briefly the other day: of contemporary French philosopher Catherine Malabou’s discourse on how the past privileging of the fixity of writing has gradually began to give way to “plasticity,” of how it has taken “the capacity to give form and the capacity to take form” as well as the capacity to annihilate form itself (as in plastic explosives).

    P.S. I prefer the physical book because of the computer’s adverse effect to my eyesight. 🙂

  3. Nice, Cher. I was surprised with my Kindle that I could get into a book just as much. However, e-readers destroy the structure of a book: to get a sense of how a writer broke the story into acts and why, to see them coming, to linger at the break, and to see them going is very important to me. The first thing I do with a book is dogear the section breaks so I can see the physical size of the acts. You can’t do that with an e-reader, and in that way it flattens the story for me. Of course, if I did not mark the pages I guess a book would be the same. But I wonder how many readers check to see where the breaks are, or at least look back at the breaks. My reader may tell me I have read 21 percent, but I can’t look forward, not in the same way, to see the size of the next act. E books are convenient for travel and exercise, though.

    1. Good points, Richard — especially when you say that not being able to see the physical size of the acts flattens the story in a way. When someone told me about their Kindle reading and that he couldn’t look forward, I thought that was odd — seems like one of the most natural things to do when reading: to anticipate, to see how much, is coming next.

  4. I think as long as humans require daily reaffirmations of the tangible in life (ie, looking away from “The Screen” for just a few seconds for God’s sake), paper books won’t be going anywhere soon. I feel the popularity of the ebook lies in two things: portability and simple gadget fetishizing. And while those modern forces are strong, not much will take away from the experience of the tangible and very physical reaffirmation of opening books and turning pages.

    That being said, as electronics become more entrenched in our everyday lives it will become more and more about efficiency and expediency that drives the electronic movement. I love Franzen’s take and I think it’s valid, that nothing can take the place of the tangible act of reading paper books, but I can see a distant future where the “idea cloud” of the internet decimating how we once looked at them. Kids will laugh at you, you’ll feel ashamed shackled to the past like some dinosaur, guilty to be a speedbump on the road of progress, not to mention selfishly sucking down natural resources.

    I do find it interesting that our generation sits at a crossroads as Mike’s “insubstantial idea transfer machine” changes everything we ever did.

    1. Yes. I agree with everything you said, Nico. (And you said it well, too.) I especially like that first bit where you say that as long as we need daily reaffirmations of the tangible in life, the book itself won’t be going anywhere soon.

  5. My wife and I walked into this niche book store the other day, and it was great. It was a book store that was obviously started by someone who likes books, because the books in there were all these unusual or independent books, and not just the latest John Grishams etc. It was nice to just browse in a book store like that, because the books had a sense of history, and this was the kind of store that inspires kids to pick up a pen in the hopes that they’ll some day have a book in a store like this.

    At the time, we remarked that it’ll be sad if e-books will eventually kill stores like this, but when I bought her a Kindle for her birthday, she also realized just how convenient they are and how much more reading she could get done with it.

    But still, I can’t imagine feeling that sense of intimacy and connection when browsing for books on a website… or inspiring a child to want to write their own book.

    1. You create a poignant (and sad) visual in my head when you talk about the disappearance of such bookstores, which provides less opportunities for kids to browse shelves, turn pages of books, and get inspired.

      When I worked at Barnes & Noble, each time I walked through the children’s books section, I’d run into toddlers pulling picture books off the shelves, playing and exploring in piles of books, looking curiously — pillaging playfully. At the time, I was irked, but this image now makes me happy.

      Thanks again for stopping by…and leaving your thoughts!

  6. “Recently, novelist Jonathan Franzen said that e-books lack a sense of permanence. “

    They also lack individuality and character. Do people who use e-readers not miss the colorful cover, the feel of the pages between the fingers, the signs of use, and the weight of it in one’s hands?

    I feel that e-books are killing the brick and mortar bookstores. Borders went bankrupt and has been shutting down their locations, and even a Barnes & Noble near me (which was large and very active) got shut down. It saddens me that genuine books are going the way of the dinosaur.

    1. Yes, it *is* sad that bookstores are shutting down, from the independent neighborhood spots to the giants.

      I do agree that an e-book lacks individuality and character — I mean, what within an e-book do we compare to a traditional book cover, its jacket, its spine? But that said, I think the multimedia features of an e-book — photographs, slideshows, videos, complementary story timelines, character bio, etc. — are promising, or at least add to a story in a new way.

      Again, it’s different. We indeed lose something, but also gain something new.

      Thanks so much for your comment.

  7. I love the smell of books, the feeling of walking into a library and the weight of excellent writing in my hands. However, I have read more on my Kindle in the past year because of the ease of accessibility. My high school students embrace more difficult literature almost exclusively because it is at their fingertips. Great post!

    1. “The weight of excellent writing in my hands” — wonderful phrase! And I agree, I love this sensation, too.

      I’ve heard great things about the accessibility of literature on the Kindle, and that’s also awesome to hear about your high school students. I worked in a sixth grade classroom for six years and left just before the school began a pilot program with iPads — I wish I was still there to see how the students are interacting with and responding to the devices.

  8. Wonderful piece! And strangely timely; I was at an NYU panel discussion a few days ago called ‘Literature Unbound’, about the digital possibilities of literature. There was quite a bit of Franzen-bashing. As one guy pointed out, the idea that books are permanent and authoritative (as opposed to e-books) is basically a myth; books change all the time. He gave the example of More’s Utopia, which in the space of one year was published in four different official forms. No one talked about the changes that happen when a book is translated.

    Personally; my reservations about e-books are tied to how familiar I am with regular books. I can’t fold the four corners of the page of an e-book forwards or backwards, as necessary. I can’t underline, circle, draw arrows and add notes in margins in various directions or fonts. But they’re all things that e-books can learn to do. And I will also learn to want to do things that only e-books can do.

    Really, really love this! For someone who, to my mind, is much more about quality and quantity, you’re really producing a lot of consistently excellent stuff.

    1. Thanks Phil. The panel discussion sounds intriguing — I’m eager to listen in on more discussions like this; I saw that the Atavist held a talk about memoir in the digital age and that, too, is of interest.

      I think it sucks we will lose some features we are used to with the e-book (the inability to scribble in margins, for instance), but as you said, the e-book will learn to do this, or will have something similar to which we will adapt. Still, I think we will always have access to books — books we’ve owned and accumulated over time, at least. I’m a bit irked when people talk about taking the side of one or the other — can’t we just embrace both?

      And thanks again for your comment about the stuff I’ve recently posted. As I said on Twitter, my goal is to post less — but better — pieces. Topic-wise, I’ve allowed myself some freedom, but I seem to naturally muse on the same themes over and over, relating to the Internet and digital culture, and my response to it.

  9. I agree that ebooks are wider open to tampering, to copy & pasting and all the other aspects of digitality that we cherish as editorial freedoms. And after reading what Cory Doctorow has to say, I’m a little worried about ownership issues and about the potential for Amazon and other e-publishers to become the next generation of gatekeepers. I’m not sure where that’s all going…

    But yes. I’m with Parks.

    When I walk into a library, I’m blown away by the sheer amount to read. I love that feeling. And it’s not about the books – because when I log into, say, Project Gutenberg, I feel pretty much the same thing.

    I love books. I love books as things to admire, even worship. And I still read books, which is why But what I most treasure about books is the words, and I like the idea of having the idol-worship aspect of books stripped away, the rampant materialism, until the only thing that matters is what the words do to you as they pass through your mind. Anything that gets in the way of that, as Parks suggest….well, it *gets in the way*. It’s a bit like radio vs. TV. Radio exists nowhere except inside your head (in a sense – I’m not suggesting I willingly imagine listening to BBC Radio 2 every day at work, because I’d have to question my sanity). Radio is just about sounds, many of them words, but *all* of them creating thoughts inside my head. And when radio is gone, it’s gone. And rarely is a radio an object of worship – ditto a TV…

    That is part of what I love about the Internet – it’s a fleeting (if heavily archived), insubstantial idea-transferring machine. It’s in my head (hopefully only in the one sense). I don’t care if I get onto it on this laptop, or a machine at work, or my phone – that matters much less than what I’m accessing. Same with ebooks.

    (Potentially. I say this as a Kindle worshipper who just had a new altar arrive from Amazon a few days ago).

    There’s another aspect to my e-print adoration, and it’s this: I’m someone keen to shed his possessions and minimalize in order to travel. So that’s a factor. I reckon if someone did a study of static vs. nomadic lifestyles, they’d find a preference for ebooks in the latter case, and maybe not just for the practical value. I’d like to see this done, somewhere.

    My support for ebooks depends on one line in the Parks essay:

    “Only the sequence of the words must remain inviolate.”

    The sanctity of original texts is already (mildly) under siege – just look at how quotes on Twitter get altered, snipped, twisted. Content gets scraped from websites, chopped up and placed elsewhere, and ideas are misconstrued and misconveyed. All that’s needed is for a publisher to take it on themselves to start creating a “Reader’s Digest” version of ebooks without the formal consent of authors, backed up by a nefarious line or two of small print on T & Cs that nobody ever gets round to reading, and that’s trouble.

    At that point, I will happily switch sides.

    1. I’m just going to reiterate a few things you said that I love. Because, well, you said everything eloquently — I’ve nothing to add.

      The Internet: “a fleeting . . . insubstantial idea-transferring machine.”

      And: “I like the idea of having the idol-worship aspect of books stripped away, the rampant materialism, until the only thing that matters is what the words do to you as they pass through your mind.”

      Yes. Exactly.

  10. It’s safe to be open too now that every one of us are quite oblivious to the fact that one day we may be humanoids ourselves. We may just have to plug in a chip for our processor to read the bits and bytes of Pride and Prejudice. One day, hundreds of years ago we were open to receiving the printing press, hot technology of that day and here we are! It is a great time to read and write as you say.
    But as experimental as I am with technology there’s always a fear, not exactly in the lines of Franzen. I can possibly save a physical book a fire but how am I to save an electronic document from the one hundred and one possible etroubles? Chaining Literature I am against, but being deprived of it even while I could help it is something I’m very apprehensive about.

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