Last night my friend Sue and I braved the cold and went downtown to hear author Jonathan Franzen speak. Franzen is a novelist and essayist and holds strong opinions on any number of subjects. He’s also charming and funny and scary smart. It was a fascinating evening, and I went home slightly giddy from the rush of intellectual stimulation.
One thing he said in particular resonated with me. Franzen is no Luddite (he was very adamant on this point, since he’s often called one), and contends that he’s a fan of much that technology has to offer, but at the same time he’s clearly concerned about the direction the world is going, what with the constant magnetic pull of smart phones and chatter of social media, including Twitter. I couldn’t agree more, especially on this last point — I tried Twitter a while back for 48 hours and had to unplug it as it made my head spin. He’s not fond of e-books, either, and spoke eloquently about “the quiet permanence of the written word.”
I love that.
“The quiet permanence of the written word.”
Personally, I don’t mind e-books. My own e-book sales are brisk, thank you very much dear readers, and I would break down and cry if someone tried to take away the e-reader my sister gave me. It’s an absolute life-saver when I travel — I’ll never run out of reading material on a cross-country flight again. Still, to my mind, reading an e-book simply can’t hold a candle to the particular joys of reading a physical book. There’s the whole bookness of a physical book, for starters, its familiar form and feel, its intoxicating smell, its satisfying heft. Having published fourteen of my own at this point, I also know exactly how much thought and care goes into every physical book on the shelf, from the dedicated editors who stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the writer to the gifted artists and designers who dream up the cover, select the font, and lay out the pages. And in the case of children’s picture books, there’s another layer involved as well: the illustrator, whose artwork lights up the words. A physical book is a labor of love and a work of art, truly.
And then there’s the actual experience of reading. I don’t find I’m able to dive into a story on an e-reader in quite the same way I do with a book. Eventually the story sucks me in and I’m not as conscious of the fact that I’m clicking a button or touching a screen to “turn the page,” but there’s still something vaguely disorienting about the whole thing. I don’t like not being able to see both pages at once (and no, using an app on my laptop screen doesn’t do it for me either in this regard), and I don’t like not being able to flip ahead or back or know at a glance how much further I have to go to the finish line. Plus, once I do get to the finish line, if the book is one I absolutely loved, I can’t pass the e-book version along to family or friends.
(Apparently I’m not alone in my preference, as a recent essay by Nicholas Carr in the Wall Street Journal points out.)
So all things being equal, I’ll take “the quiet permanence of the written word” that waits for me between the covers of a book any day of the week. And thank you, Jonathan Franzen, for that beautiful phrase.