On books, bytes, and permanence


I came across this 2010 interview with Jonathan Franzen for the A.V. Club today.  At one point he’s asked about technology and publishing, and specifically about the impact of e-readers on literature.

Most of the experience of reading The Great Gatsby is just the story itself, and you can get that in any form, including an audio version or something. But there’s something about having that book, that physical object, that I turn each page of and have on the shelf, that matters to me. And probably more important, those pages were white, and then they had Fitzgerald put on them. The problem I had with the Kindle when I tried it was, you know, first I had Ann Coulter, then I had Flannery O’Connor. [Laughs.] It’s the same little sheet. It makes everything seem unsubstantial. In my own twisted mind, it makes the words seem more arbitrary, less intrinsically valuable, less substantive if it can just be any words.

He doesn’t really answer the question at all, or at least not the question that was asked.  Instead he’s talking about the impact of the Kindle, and every other form of digital publishing, on the experience of reading literature.

I gave up collecting books like trophies a long time ago.  I do like holding a book in my hands, though I could probably live without it.  But I think he’s right that a book seems (literally) insubstantial when it’s not really a book anymore, when it can disappear so easily.  Does it have to feel less substantive, too?  It shouldn’t.  But there’s a reason why publishers spent money on cover design and layout and typesetting.  And there’s a reason why most authors probably still want to see their books in print.  They want something solid, something that can’t be erased.

And I know it’s the story that matters.  But I still like looking over and seeing the spine of a book that I’ve loved.  The cracks in the spine.  I like the idea that the story and everything I loved about it — which includes me, my own memory of the experience of reading it and living through it — is sitting there inside that book.  Asleep, maybe.  Or not asleep, still going on without me, and will still be going on long after I’m gone.


About the author

Tom Howard

Tom Howard is the author of Fierce Pretty Things (Indiana University Press, 2019).

He received his MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Fierce Pretty Things won the 2018 Blue Light Books Fiction Prize, and his individual stories have won the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction, the Indiana Review Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award for Fiction, the Carve Magazine Prose & Poetry Contest, the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction, the Innovative Short Fiction Prize, the Willow Springs Ficiton Prize, the Rash Award in Fiction, and the Robert J. DeMott Award for Short Prose.

He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.

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