Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Carl Zimmer Responds to Jonathan Franzen

Ebooks: More Boon to Literacy Than Threat to Democracy. (Discover, 1/31/2012)

Excerpt:    Books were not frozen solid before the invention of the Kindle. Charles Darwin, for instance, rushed out The Origin of Species in 1859 in a fit of desperation, his hand forced by Alfred Russel Wallace’s near-simultaneous discovery of evolution. Darwin was not terribly happy with how the book turned out, and so he continued to revise it for decades, churning out six editions all told. He was perpetually adding clarifications, correcting typographical errors, removing arguments that he no longer liked. A century before computers, Darwin could not resist the urge to “delete that, change that, move it around.” And despite Darwin’s ebook-like compulsion to alter his own text, he still managed to establish the foundation of modern biology. 

It’s certainly true that ebooks are an awkward young format that’s still sloppy and hard to manage. There are plenty of fly-by-night ebook editions of Fitzgerald’s writing, panned in customer reviews for their sloppy formatting. But you can also buy a Kindle edition of The Great Gatsby from, yes, Scribner—the same house that originally published the book in hardback. 

Rather than set the world on fire with radical contigency, I expect that ebooks will follow much the same trajectory as paperbacks. They will start out being frowned upon as shabby, and then they will deliver literature conveniently to millions of people who might not otherwise have read it. In fact, I just discovered to my surprise that I no longer have my paperback copy of The Great Gatsby. It must have disappeared on one of my moves. To fill the gap, I’ve downloaded an ebook version, which I’m looking forward to rereading this evening. And for that, whether he likes it or not, I have Franzen to thank.

Companion piece:
Jonathan Franzen:  ebooks are damaging society.  (Telegraph, 1/29/2012)

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