Thursday, February 02, 2012

Books, ebooks, and how everything's always changing

So Jonathan Franzen has gone and said another odd thing in public, this time about ebooks and their apparent threat to civilization. Not surprisingly, I'm ambivalent about these remarks. I do wonder about the relative impermanence and mutability of ebooks (though the corollary is that ebooks won't go out of print, at least not in such a definitive manner). Personally, I have yet to read an ebook, though not for any ideological reason. It's just that I do so much reading on screens, and this reading is mostly of a scattered, nerve-jangling quality. (When I'm online, I picture my brain cells as little bubbles in a pan of simmering water.) I turn to physical books for relief from that kind of reading--for immersive reading experiences. But I doubt I'll be doing this forever. There's too much to like about the convenience of ebooks.

See? Ambivalence.

However, last night I watched this NOVA documentary about attempts to authenticate a drawing thought to be by Leonardo. As Walter Benjamin told us long ago, our definition of "artist" relies on the physical presence of a single work of art--even as technology makes those works more and more reproducible. What will it mean to authenticate written works, once they all go digital? Probably most authors these days compose on a computer, with a minimum of handwritten notes. In theory, we still have Stephen King's Wang to give us some sense of origin (although not in practice, as it turned out). But as books become less and less physical, all sloshing around together in the "cloud"--itself a metaphor for an even less physical entity--will our sense of the term "author" change, too? Will we start to seem less like physical beings who made something, and more like wisps in the cloud ourselves?

And if so, is that all bad?

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