Debate: Ebooks and the future of democracy

e-reader use is on the rise. e-reader use is on the rise. Photo Credit:

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Do e-books threaten democracy? Best-selling novelist (and former Time Magazine cover subject) Jonathan Franzen made waves when he declared that electronic books -- like those available on readers such as the Kindle, the Nook and the iPad -- don't have the value and staying power of good old-fashioned printed paper tomes.

"It's going to be very hard to make the world work if there's no permanence like that," Franzen told a British newspaper. "That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government."

Are e-books bad for society? Or are Franzen and his ilk just cranky?

JOEL MATHIS: Last year, I read "The Federalist Papers" for the first time. The book is a collection of 200-year-old newspaper essays from Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison -- Founding Fathers all -- explaining and defending the Constitution of the United States. I read almost none of it on paper.

Instead, I read the venerable document on these devices: a netbook, an iPhone, my iPad, a desktop computer and a Kindle. I took notes and made highlights, and many of the ideas I discovered and engaged in that book, on those devices, later became the basis for points I make in this weekly column.

According to Franzen, though, my experience is impossible. According to Franzen, I should've opted to use those devices to play "Angry Birds" instead.

When new technologies come along, old technologies are replaced. It's true that sometimes we lose something of value as a result. I've been an avid reader since I learned how to read; I love bookstores and I love having shelves of books. It makes me sad to see stores like Borders go out of business because times have changed.

Here's another truth: The rise of e-books has opened up worlds of opportunity for writers whose work didn't fit the templates of old-school publishers. A friend of mine, Justin Blessinger, self-published a comic novella at Amazon, because print publishers don't have much use for novellas. More famously, writer Amanda Hocking got rich selling her fantasy novels as e-books -- and only then was signed to a major publisher. Similar stories abound: Publishing has become more egalitarian, and democratic, thanks to e-books.

The Founders didn't need books, exactly, to break away from Britain and create the Constitution -- they needed the ideas contained in those books. E-books are just a new way to create and pass down those ideas.

They're doing the job quite well.

BEN BOYCHUK: Doubts about e-books really come down to a question of trust. Will e-books last when the lights go out? And what happens if the lights don't come back on? Franzen sounds a terrifying alarm, but he's obviously not the only one who worries about the staying power of electronic media. E-book anxiety is one of the themes running through "Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books," just published by Yale University Press.

Editor Leah Price sought out 13 authors to photograph and discuss their libraries -- where, how and why they keep their books, including their 10 most cherished volumes.

Novelist Philip Pullman, author of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy among other books, owns a Kindle and allows that it may signal "we're on the cusp of a revolution as great as Gutenberg's, but then maybe we're not."

"I mistrust any device," Pullman tells Price, "whose continued usage depends on vast, mysterious and invisible infrastructure of electricity supply, computer servers, broadband connections, credit facilities and so on."

Pullman might have added that when you buy a hardcover or paperback, it's indisputably yours. That isn't necessarily true of an e-book.

Recall how a few years ago, some Kindle owners woke up one morning to discover what they thought was their copy of George Orwell's "Animal Farm" had disappeared. Turns out, that particular edition had run afoul of copyright law and licensing rules. So Amazon removed the book from users' Kindles, replacing it with another edition only after a public outcry.

Is it unreasonable for readers to wonder whether some other extraordinary circumstance might require their e-books to one day disappear as well? For those of us surrounded by the printed word, that fear never enters our minds.

Pages may yellow and eventually crumble; a book's binding may crack and break; and, of course, paper burns. But paperbacks don't need batteries -- or licenses.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of City Journal. Write to him at bboychuk@city-journal.org. Joel Mathis is a writer in Philadelphia. Write to him at joelmmathis@gmail.com. Join the conversation at www.facebook.com/benandjoel.

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