The Permanence of the Book

January 31st, 2012

Jonathan Franzen writes about why he likes print books–in short, because they are permanent:

“Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I’m handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that’s reassuring,”

“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.”

For serious readers, Franzen said, “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,” he continued. “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.”

 Fascinating. I see permanence–that is, not flexible–as a bad thing, not a good thing. Why would I want a book that becomes out of date the second it is printed when I could have a screen that always has access to the latest and greatest. I suppose there is a different dynamic for non-fiction. Who would want a classic to change? Though, it seems that ereaders can preserve classics just as well as paper books.