Friday, 3 February 2012

Franzen's Freedom Fries

Heard about Jonathan Franzen's rant about e-books corroding social values and endangering democracy? I am, and you should be, puzzled at the leap from e-books to self-government. It's such a sudden transition that one wonders whether the journo skipped a paragraph or two somewhere.

However, some points are worth pondering.

I don't know if the "radical contingency" in the fluidity and stealth of e-book edits can "threaten democracy", but what I thought was pertinent was this bit when he argued for paper books: "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."

One year in publishing has taught me that one is never really, really sure if a book is going to be right, even after it's printed. Something will slip through: missing punctuation marks, typos and the like, or the occasional, unfortunately nuanced phrase. What we do is try. Really hard.

The loads of people touting e-books and self-publishing as the future appear to be inadvertently selling the myth that digital self-publishing is a viable road towards best-sellership in the new millennium.

Probably, but not without the "hard work" that goes into Franzen's idea of the book, such as editing and marketing. Why else did that self-publishing wunderkind eventually seek the help of traditional publishers?

Franzen also reportedly made a statement that suggests we left our nations' financial decisions to bankers because we're too busy with our gadgets:

If you go to Europe, politicians don't matter. The people making the decisions in Europe are bankers. The technicians of finance are making the decisions there. It has very little to do with democracy or the will of the people. And we are hostage to that because we like our iPhones.

Makes you wonder, right? Was it the editorial standards or did Franzen's train of thought, in fact, skip a few rails?

I do agree that the tech boom has its dark side. Hardware manufacturers seemed to be pushing newer, faster, smaller, higher capacity, etc on consumers, creating a market that recycles its gadgets every year or so. Like the Walter Berglund character in Franzen's Freedom, many of us are kept awake at night by the "trillion bits of distracting noise", finding ways to contribute to the chatter for no apparent reason other than to belong. Our offline lives become mundane.

Perhaps that's why some people shouldn't be connected to the Internet when they want to write or work.

But as it has already been pointed out, neither paper nor digital media confer a true sense of permanence. Paper degrades, turns colour or becomes mildewy. And what if an e-publisher pulls a book from its library? Then, this claim:

...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.

If true, isn't that more of a threat to democracy - and freedom of speech or expression - that the addiction to gadgets?

Books will be around, and it will take on other forms. Some of us just need more time than others to get used to the changes.

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