Monday, January 30, 2012

Why I am not (currently) Reading Jonathan Franzen

I always seem to have a built-in skepticism towards books other people try to persuade me to read.  This is probably because Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid was forced on me in its pre-publication form by a colleague I otherwise respected;  and I was ready to throw the damned thing against the wall before I had gotten beyond the first page.  As a result I have never quite figured out why everyone is so excited by Jonathan Franzen for any reason other than his writing books that are thicker than anything they would think of reading.  This has led to my giving more than passing attention to how The New York Review has covered his work, which has only enhanced my skepticism.

Currently Franzen is one of the honored guests at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Columbia.  My primary source for learning about these events is the London Telegraph;  and today’s Web edition includes a transcript of remarks that Franzen gave at his press conference.  I cannot resist observing that this transcript was prepared by Anita Singh, whom the Telegraph lists as a “Showbusiness Editor.”  This was a slightly amusing red flag.  At the very least it suggested that, while The New York Review was trying to approach Franzen’s work as literature, the Telegraph preferred to think of him as a show business act.  However, this did not soften the blow of my experience of reading Singh’s transcript;  and I should be thankful that my computer configuration cannot easily be thrown at the wall in the matter I had seriously considered for Douglas Hofstadter’s manuscript.

However, while I eventually reviewed GEB with a laundry list of its misconstrued assertions, I think that this time I can contain myself to a single excerpt from Singh’s transcript:

My problem with e-book readers is that one minute I’m reading some trashy website, the next minute I’m reading Jane Austen – on the same screen. I think, for serious readers, 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. I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That things can be 'whatever', depending on the moment. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.

My problem (to assume Franzen’s rhetorical stance) is that this text seems to lack a fundamental understanding of concepts like “reading” and “permanence.”  It seems as if Franzen rejects reading literature from the screen because it is too easy to be distracted by “trash.”  My own experience is that susceptibility to distraction has a lot to do with what you are reading and how well the text has managed to absorb you.  I can read even the most abstruse academic text while sitting in a concert hall full of a chattering audience waiting for the lights to lower;  but, if the author has me hooked, none of that distracts me.  That’s the kind of reader I am, and perhaps I should take this statement as some kind of affirmation that I am really not the right reader for Franzen’s texts!

As to the question of permanence, to revive that old cliché from the MIT Media Lab, bits on the screen are neither more nor less permanent that the atoms necessary to put marks on paper.  After all, it was only yesterday that I was celebrating my ability to relish a facsimile of a first edition of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which I may never get to do in the world of atoms but can easily do in the world of bits.  I would even go so far as to say that the permanence of that first edition has been enhanced by virtue of being digitized:  While both digital and physical copies are susceptible to destructive forces, I have a certain amount of faith that digital versions have backup versions through which they may be restored should such forces strike.

This kind of logical lapse, unfortunately, is but the tip of the greater iceberg of Singh’s transcript.  Ultimately, one does not have to turn to The New York Review to learn about Franzen.  Mose Allison got his number, even if he never met the guy.  He’s the one who wrote the line, “your mind is on vacation and your mouth is workin' overtime!”

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