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Make the language just right

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Jonathan Franzen’s homily on the trouble with ebooks and the superiority of print has zapped its way around the world from the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia (the Telegraph’s showbusiness editor has the full story):

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.

I can, up to a point, see where he’s coming from. Alongside the paperbacks doublestacked on my shelves that I’m oddly reluctant to throw out but would happily consign to the memory card of a Kindle (most of Ian McEwan’s novels, for example) there are books that I value for all sorts of more or less sentimental reasons, from editions that my grandparents bought in the 1930s – a crumbling Ulysses, a copy of Ash-Wednesday with a postcard my grandmother sent my grandfather before they were married tucked inside, a first edition of Auden’s ‘Spain’ (hardly a book, but still) – to a rare first UK edition of Franzen’s Freedom, thousands of copies of which had to be pulped (delete that, change that, move it around) because it was based on the wrong draft of the novel and full of mistakes.

Comments on “Make the language just right”

  1. outofdate says:

    Things have been going downhill since stone tablets went out of fashion. Ten commandments, Here Lies, none of this endless piffle.

  2. philip proust says:

    For years some publishers have stinted on the quality of paperbacks. Paper quality and book binding are often poor. Worse still, as an economy measure, font sizes have too often shrunk to the point where industrial-strength glasses are a necessity; under that pressure, reading becomes more of a struggle than a pleasure and the ‘magic’ Franzen associates with ‘real’ books is lost. The adjustable nature of the font on e-books is a major advantage; discerning the letters becomes easier for those with problematic eyes, and the reading experience is also heightened. The temptation to skim over sentences is reduced as the reader is confronted with a more direct confrontation with the words. Franzen’s distrust of the new form is perhaps connected to the way in which the author is more thoroughly exposed in the new format: the ‘magic of the book’ is less likely to obscure problems with the writing.

    In addition there are the obvious environmental benefits in production, transportation and storage. The increased potential for self-publishing and a more democratic literary world are already emerging.

    • Hang on a minute – are you saying that ebooks are better because you can manipulate font sizes and stuff? Add your own comments or a few pictures? And why is the writer “more thoroughly exposed”? Sounds like street-wise Macluhenism to me. “Obvious environmental benefits”? Books are very recyclable, more so than those piffling data cards or whatever you call them.
      A major argument for books is that it gives people like Phillip Larkin a place to earn a living. There are thousands of gentle people working in book shops, helping other people to find a suitable read for Uncle Will for his birthday. Do you want them all to lose their jobs? Book shops are one of the reasons to be cheerful in this dire age and don’t you forget it.

      • cigar says:

        That’s true, nothing on amazon can compare to the experience of exploring the shelves of a used book store. Thankfully, the way amazon and the book business are handling ebook pricing (i.e.: extortion), you will not a few times be better off checking abebooks or alibris for a decently priced copy of a used book (I am pretty sure that by getting their stock online, many independent bookstore are doing better than before – so it seems the Internet is not all bad for good ol’ paper & ink).

        At the same time, formatting textbooks for ebook readers has proven to be a really tough problem, even for amazon. It’s not pleasant to read a PDF even on the Kindle DX’s 10 inch screen; in the standard issue Kindle it’s totally discouraging. And it gets worse if the ebook has foreign language text. I was checking out a Routledge Russian grammar book, re-edited barely two years ago, and half the reviews were pouring flaming scorn on the Kindle edition. It seems the geniuses at amazon didn’t implement Unicode, a multi lingual text encoding standard that has been around for more than two decades… Reminds me of the late Saint Steve of Cupertino, California refusing to allow Adobe Flash on the iOS.

        • David Gordon says:

          The availability of fonts on some electronic gadgets is a problem. I recently had cause to correct a text sent to me by a colleague, adding the diacritical marks appropriate to Czech proper names in the document, and relaying a comment that J P Stern made in a letter to the LRB, apropos of not using the diacriticals in Czech, “only German ultra-nationalists have gone in for this practice.”

          No luck. My colleague was using a computer made by the aforementioned Saint Steve of Cupertino, and the Czech alphabet was nowhere to be found. Mr Gates’ merry men make it easy on my machine to use the correct alphabet. Maybe German ultra-nationalists have influence we did not know.

      • philip proust says:

        Geoff Roberts, are you suggesting that it doesn’t really matter if the reader is unable to decipher the print because of its size? I don’t know the statistics but I would assume that, after the age of fifty, reading without the aid of glasses becomes uncommon. The size of the font is a matter of huge importance for a great many members of the reading public. Creating a technology where the font size is adjustable is no mean achievement.
        Philip Larkin worked as a librarian at the University of Hull, and there was nothing in my post to suggest that physical libraries should be liquidated.
        The decline of the independent bookshop began long before the rise of the Kindle. The huge chains have made browsing rather a dreary exercise, as the choice of stock is mandated by head office and thus dominated by best-sellers; the quantity of backcopies is limited to non-existent. Finding a ‘gentle’ person to advise you about a book for Uncle Will has become a vain quest; paying for your book has became the only time you are sure to see a member of the shop’s staff. Versions of the LRB shop in London are now rare, alas, and this has much more to do with the logic of big business rather than march of technology.

  3. RobotBoy says:

    He is right up to a point, and yet, why does Franzen always come off as a ponce? Is it just that he’s sold more books than me?

  4. loxhore says:

    if you mean the eliot poem, ashHYPHENwednesday

  5. zelda says:

    Personally I feel liberated by the ability to read books through different media – digitally (on more than one device) or in paper form. It actually gives me a lot more time to read, as I don’t have to rely on having a paper copy with me – I can read even if I don’t have any books with me. I think authors such as Franzen are also threatened by the democratisation of writing implicit in the e-book creation process. We can’t change the growing shift in public demand for e-books over the printed versions. However, we can look at the positives.

  6. streetsj says:

    I’m wondering what industrial strength glasses are? Is the reading left to a machine too?

  7. philip proust says:

    I suppose streetsj you wrote your comment on your typewriter; amazing that you were able to get it onto a website.

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