Jonathan Franzen’s Mixed Messages On Books And Obama’s Reading

Jonathan Franzen has been in the news lately for saying two things. First, he told attendees at the Hay Festival that e-readers are a threat to our society:

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…a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience…Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn’t change…Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way? Who have that hunger for something permanent and unalterable? I don’t have a crystal ball. But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.

Then, in the same speech, he apparently voiced some skepticism about whether President Obama should be spending his time reading: “One of the reasons I love Barack Obama as much as I do is that we finally have a real reader in the White House. It’s absolutely amazing. There’s one of us running the U.S. [Although] when I heard he was reading Freedom I thought, ‘Why are you reading a novel? There are important things to be doing!”

Now, I’m obviously a big advocate of having a reader in the White House, both because I think consuming smart culture, whether it’s Freedom or Homeland can provide perspective on both issues and the national mindset, and because I think even presidents need a break. I’ve never particularly understood people who object to presidential leisure, within reasonable limits, of course. The presidency is an incredibly difficult job, probably too large for one person. But if we’re going to have one person do it, that person needs to be saved from burnout and insanity as best as possible, a process that means both vacations and reading things that are not giant briefings with check boxes attached.


On the larger issue of e-readers, I’m not sure I see Franzen’s point. Most e-readers don’t contain the option to alter the words of the text itself, only to highlight, add bookmarks, and marginalia and notes. Having a print copy of a book doesn’t guarantee that it’ll be treated with reverence, as any college student or deeply engaged reader’s marked-up texts can attest. The move from cotton paper to pulp-based paper actually means that our books are less permanent and lasting edifices than they used to be. Digital copies may last longer, and in more pristine condition, than our paperbacks of today do. That doesn’t mean that books can’t be fetish objects, or artwork, of course. But digital can offer its own interactivity, picture quality, etc., and so if you’re just critiquing the form in terms of its permanence, I think Franzen is barking up the wrong tree. The real question should be whether any innovation in the form brings in more readers and gets them to read more books. It’s still early, but research suggests that people who own e-readers are upping their book consumption. From both an economic and an intellectual perspective, that should make Franzen pretty happy.