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We are all networking these days and The Conversation is no longer in the first instance a Coppola film made in the 1970s – it’s actually an exchange of lucid, super-intellectual commentary on Kim Jong-Il’s cognac collection, Kate Perry’s divorce, the latest news from the Straits of Hormuz and Jonathan Franzen’s views on the eBook.

This morning as I sat down to quickly scan through 851 Twitter updates, it was like listening to a large flock of parrots in the leafage. An astonishing number of people had retweeted an article by Henry Porter in the UK Guardian: “Jonathan Franzen is wrong, the digital age is making us smarter.”  Oh, and guess what. “Jonathan Franzen is wrong, the digital age is making us smarter.” And finally: “Jonathan Franzen is wrong, the digital age is making us smarter.” You know what?  I’m starting to believe that Jonathan Franzen is not wrong. I’m also wondering if anyone actually read Henry Porter’s article, or did they just skim it and think it looked like useful tweeting material?

Guiltily I peered at my Kindle, into which last night I downloaded a copy of Lucius Seneca’s essays and an edition of Monkeybicycle magazine. I must have read at least fifteen pages from each of those two. Which makes me better informed than I was before, better read and more intelligent. Right?

Currently I have about twenty-five books in that small grey slab of battery-driven plastic, many of them unread. Franzen calls this “a lack of permanence” which (he implies) may eventually lead to failure in civil governance and the judicial state, but that’s a bit rich, isn’t it? Forgetting where my favorite bit of Seneca is located is not going to stop the Arab Spring, though it may in time turn me into a lunatic.

There is a tendency among humans to chatter, like monkeys crowding the tree-tops alongside the parrots. That is in fact what I am doing now, and the problem of social networking is that my chatter becomes your chatter, and before long we have all turned into that monstrosity (coined by Auberon Waugh, an English writer and columnist) known as the “chattering classes” – once a scathing reference to middle-class buffoons with the time and money to sit about worrying about nothing. Eventually it led to the invention of psychotherapy—I think I read that somewhere.

As we sit in our tree, arguing about the shape of this leaf or the angle of that branch, it is worth asking ourselves if we’re really getting to the heart of the matter. In debating the merits of eBooks, aren’t we just losing ourselves in detail? Surely the important thing is that the tree is growing straight, its roots reaching deep, no army of loggers on their way with giant chainsaws and monster trucks to chew the forest to pieces?

The eBook is not intrinsically wrong, it is simply a book in digital form. Only its gaseous cousin, the noBook, could ever be a threat to our liberal consensus. The noBook is the real problem of our age, leading to a nasty public addiction to inane twenty-four hour news bulletins, celebrity kiss-and-tell, “reality” shows, or out-of-tune singing and elephantine dancing, all faithfully recorded and transmitted over the airwaves like the ravings of a mental disease. Commercialism is advancing with all the confidence and inevitability of a virus. Every possible activity undertaken by humans – coffee-drinking is a great example – is being built into companies listed on the Stock Exchange. We used go to cafés run by families who kept their profit for themselves. They saved their dough and sent their children to college so they could learn about Arthur Miller and Leonard Bernstein. Now “the parents” work for eight bucks an hour or less, can’t afford children, and have never heard of college.

I have every sympathy for Jonathan Franzen. In an unguarded moment (no doubt to his eternal chagrin) he revealed that he does not like to have an Internet connection while he is writing. Like everyone else, he is addicted to this distracting show, this round-the-clock firework display of human consciousness. The mere fact that we all know about this habit of his speaks volumes for the invasiveness of the online world. We are dealers of tidbits, of samples and excerpts and scraps, tufts, feathers, dried bread and moldy cheese. We chew and chew, in the end it starts to taste like food. But there’s no meat or fresh fruit in this mixture, there are no vitamins, no B7 or calcium or potassium or zinc, our brains start breaking down. We develop tics and sudden silences, information goes missing and dementia becomes a state of mind, not a disease. One day we’ll all feel impotent without our portable auxiliary drives, also known as iPods, where we can store all the background information of our lives, all the hyperlinks and video clips and podcasts, all illustrative of… of… well… illustrative (I would say) of the need to shut up.

Back to Franzen, the fatted calf of his kind, relaxing in his comfortable Cartagena hotel at the Hay Festival: yes, Jonathan, no one can write in a storm of words. You need a bit of silence, a bit of thought. I agree. And you are entitled to your opinion like everyone else, even though the media’s insistence that you are “the Great American novelist” has earned you general opprobrium all over the world. There is no such thing as “the great American novelist,” novelists are not equipped with flags, they are stateless. And few, very few, are great and most of those are dead.

But it is not your fault that we are all chattering.

We have to keep it in perspective, we have to think about the roots, the trunk of the tree, the wind and the stars. Not whether leaves look best in autumn or spring, whether the oak beats the baobab or the sycamore’s a sophomore?

Back to fundamentals. Basics. Roots.

So, now for my conclusion on it all: I am much more worried about the noBook than the eBook. The way society is currently set up, people have time to read gossip, restaurant reviews and the lengthy and utterly inane clarifications of “financial experts.”  Television serves up a gravy of entertainment, and we need bibs to stop ourselves from looking like eight-month olds daubed in lamb purée and carrot mash. Ideas about our future society are presented by the likes of Mitt Romney or the Koch brothers, who pay for air time and in this way want to win elections. In fact they are closely emulating Amazon, the emerging behemoth that wants to own both the writer and the bookshop. Amazon will be broken up in a few years – this is my prediction of the week. Incidentally, it was a similar monopolizing instinct that led to the demise of the Hollywood studio system – directly responsible for some of the best films of the 20th century and not surprisingly coinciding with the golden age of America. Hollywood, now fragmented into virulent competing entities, is helpfully wading into the digital battle, serving up bland, lukewarm fare and wondering why the audience is disappearing. Even dressing up Meryl Streep to look like Margaret Thatcher doesn’t quite hit the spot any more. The audiences stay at home, watching television or surfing the net. Films are boring and cinemas a popcorn-stinking nightmare.

Most of the objections we hear about eBooks are technical. With time, Kindle and eReaders will become more sophisticated. Technology is easy, humans are good at it. What they are not so good at is using their brains in a constructive fashion, or making technology do what they want it to do.

So… eBooks or noBooks? Before I answer that, let me just check my e-mail.

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Henning Koch HENNING KOCH (b. 1962) moved to England at an early age and grew up there. After finishing college, he spent half a decade backpacking and occasionally working as a language teacher. He has a long history of involvement in low-budget movie projects as a screenwriter and continues to write screenplays. In 2005 he moved to Sardinia and, since 2010, has been spending increasing amounts of time in Berlin. He is the author of Love Doesn’t Work (Dzanc, 2011), a short story collection. His novel The Maggot People will be published in 2012, also by Dzanc Books: http://www.dzancbooks.org/love-doesnt-work/

11 Responses to “eBooks or noBooks?”

  1. Irene Zion says:

    Henning,
    You’re right: “The noBook is the real problem of our age….”
    I also think that people are getting awfully riled up over Jonathan Franzen having an opinion different from theirs.

  2. Henning Koch says:

    Yes, one can’t be so aesthetic about everything. But Franzen can afford to be. I guess the comfort of his position annoys people.
    Cheers, Irene!

  3. JSBreukelaar says:

    ‘There is no such thing as “the great American novelist,” novelists are not equipped with flags, they are stateless.’ So true. And noBooks or eBooks? That’s a no brainer.

  4. Brian Eckert says:

    Loved this, Henning.

    I find the debate over eBooks absolutely absurd. Like you, I think that the central issue is whether people are reading at all, whether it be in the form of books, eBooks, parchment paper, or epigrams written on cocktail napkins.

    Living abroad especially, as I do, my Kindle has been a life–er, mind, saver. I can’t count the number of quality, consciousness stirring works I’ve read in the past month, works that I firmly believe have made me a more thoughtful and well informed global citizen, which would not have been accessible to me if not for that grey battery powered piece of plastic.

    In my opinion, anybody who worships on the alter of print only is like the obnoxious aging hippy who swears that “it just sounds better on vinyl, man.”

    As for the chattering monkeys, books are a direct antidote to the momentary whims of gossip. Say, did you hear about Whitney Houston?

    • Henning Koch says:

      Yup, I’m sure you are right, Brian. What people need are filters. So they know not to waste their time. And concentration, so they put their time into useful things.
      The arguments are so clear, so obvious. Weird that so many people are still arguing for books, as if there were a choice. Oh and I think I read that last week more books were published in the US than during the entire 1950′s. Obviously we can’t print everything on paper, that would be silly.
      Last point, there’s nothing very permanent about a sodium-rich paperback, which starts to crumble after a few years and ends up in a book drawer in a second-hand market… or on the fire.

      Anyone out there able to make an educated guess about how many trees were used to print Franzen’s latest book? Would be interesting to know…

  5. Carl Plumer says:

    I’m glad you pointed out the number of books in “print” this year versus 50+ years ago. I think this is populism, in a way. People finding a small group of like-minded others and exchanging their ideas and, of course, their novels. Isn’t it strange that so many people have so much time and energy to just sit down and write? It might be crap, it might be genius. But not that many years ago, only “real authors” wrote, everyone else was either too intimidated to compete, or ridiculed for trying. But it seems that now there is an audience for every one of us who wants to sit down and write, even if that audience is less than 1,000 — less than 100. We can’t all be Jonathan Frazen, and I for one wouldn’t want his life. I know I’ll never get published at all by “big publishing,” the way things are today, and certainly not in any satisfying and sustaining way. I can’t/won’t write a best seller. And I write stories that, if I’m lucky, may one day have the “thousand true fans.” But I’ll gladly settle for ten pretty okay fans. Oh, and by the way, I ordered my first Kindle this week. It should be here Friday.

    • Henning Koch says:

      That’s great, about the Kindle. It didn’t change my life that much. Definitely not the end of civilization. It’s a fairly useful device to keep by the bed, because one can store hundreds of easily accessible books without unsightly piles or dusting nightmares.
      The writing thing is not different from every other area of creative endeavor in the 21st century. Filmmaking is possible for everyone now, it’s cheap, and every Mac is equipped with editing software. Suddenly we are all filmmakers too and some of us are really good at it. Years ago when I was a whelp we made a few short films and we had to spend thousands on paying nerds to do all sorts of weird stuff to very long bits of film. Grading and toning and splicing and developing and negatives and masters and you name it. Now it’s just two buttons on one’s laptop, while sipping a coffee.
      The same goes for music, photography, etc.
      Who wants a normal job when… hey presto… you also can be a music producer or a filmmaker or a writer…?

      The digital era has turned us into artists and potato-heads.

      Over and out!

  6. Henning Koch says:

    Maybe what we need is a cap on how many paper books can be printed in a year?
    Then the nation could hold an X-factor type annual contest and take a vote on it?

  7. Carl Plumer says:

    Funny you mentioned X-factor. See my recent post, America’s Got Writing Talent! for a rant you may (or may not) agree with.

    In a way, touches on some of the same things you mentioned above: have video camera + software = video artist; mic + keyboard + Garageband = rock/rap star; Word + free time + list of agents/epub options = author. Not to denigrate the authentic folks among the crowd at all, of course. Just the wannabes unwilling to pay their dues and looking for $$$ and stardumb.

    As for the Kindle, it’s no big deal, it’s just me catching up. :-)

    Cheers!

    • Henning Koch says:

      Hi Carl, I read your post. Enjoyed it, no bullshit there.
      It’s weird how in the olden days people wanted to be pharmacists and engineers and live in nice houses, now they all want to be writers and live in dirty rooms overlooking Sunset Boulevard.
      I can’t square it up.
      Having said that, we live in a free world now. What is a writer? Surely just a person with a dialogue in his/her mind that won’t go away; so it must be written down… and later published… on Amazon… and sold by the ton. Right?

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