One of the mistakes we literary folk tend to make is to assume that just because someone is a good novelist he or she must be wise as well. Case in point, here is Jonathan Frantzen being silly.
The gist of Frantzen’s argument is that because ebooks are not as permanent as paper books they are a threat to our society. Only if the words in a book can be preserved exactly, unchanged, for ever and ever, can civilization be maintained.
There are obviously dangers about work only published electronically being lost because electronics decay more quickly than paper. But this isn’t the point that Frantzen is making, and anyway the same charge could be leveled at paper vis-a-vis writing on stone tablets.
It is possible that Frantzen is concerned about the ability of Amazon to change the text in a book you have purchased without your permission. However, that only applies if you buy from someone like Amazon or Apple, and don’t take steps to ensure you have a safe copy of what you bought. We shouldn’t expect non-SF authors to be computer literate, but again this doesn’t appear to be his main point. What he really wants is for those words, presumably especially the ones he wrote, to be preserved exactly as they were written.
So I wonder, what would he have done had he been alive in Homer’s time? Because before mankind invented writing, all literature was handed down from one performer to another and had to be remembered. I’m sure the ancient bards, no matter what culture they came from, were very good at memorizing stories. But I also suspect that they were not perfect, and that some of them could not resist the temptation to extemporize.
I note in passing that one of the joys of Arthurian scholarship is to see how the stories have been reconfigured over the centuries to fit the prevailing culture in which they are being told.
For that matter, what would Frantzen do if he were a playwright? Because one of the joys of theatre is to see how each new director interprets classic plays. What would Shakespeare have made of West Side Story? Given that he made no attempt to put his plays in historically accurate settings, but rather put the ancient world in a contemporary (for him) Elizabethan environment, I think he would have approved.
So this desire for permanence, while understandable in a novelist (and perhaps ever more so in a poet), is really anti-art. Furthermore, I suspect that the idea that things written down centuries ago can and should be used as absolute guides to correct moral behavior now has been much more damaging to society than the idea that texts might be changed. Really, Mr Frantzen, there is no need to panic.
Update: Chad Post was much less polite than I have been.