Sunday, March 11, 2012


What's up with this guy? 

He seems to be morally opposed to Twitter. Apparently he thinks people are trying to tweet their entire dissertations or well-researched and supported arguments in 140 characters or less:

Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose ... It's hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters … It's like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it's like writing a novel without the letter 'P'… It's the ultimate irresponsible medium. People I care about are readers … particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.

Um, yes, it's very hard to create an entire argument replete with citations and support in 140 characters or less. It's also hard to call something 140 characters long a novel, or a book, or a run-on sentence. Which is why no one uses Twitter to do that. Twitter is not supposed to replace novels or essays or long-form. It's just a tool to help discover long-form arguments and articles, to share them with those that might be interested. It's there to help disseminate information and events and opinions. Is that what he's against? Sharing information and opinions? You don't get twitter,  or you do and you don't like it, so... don't use it. Simple. It is not the scurge of society. It is a tool that's only as good as the people that wield it, like any other.

That he's "opposed" to Twitter is no surprise. Last year he bemoaned the evils of Facebook, seeming to think it turns us all into narcissistic attention monsters:

Our lives look a lot more interesting when they're filtered through the sexy Facebook interface. We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery.

And, since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don't have to have contempt for its manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It's all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.

First, "sexy Facebook interface" - really? And this was before the timeline, which is at least an improvement in the look of the profile. Clearly this dude's got low standards when it comes to "sexy interfaces." Second, "private hall of flattering mirrors"? I wish. It's more like being trapped in the private hell of high schooly cliquishness. Nothing like learning about births and engagements and marriages of friends formerly considered close via Facebook. But hey, at least I'm in "the loop," or something. 

But I digress regressively into my childhood wall flowered self (Franzen, are you wearing off on me?). I'm clearly not Facebook's biggest fan, but I don't think all its 800M+ account holders are hopeless narcissistic automatons addictively clicking every "like" button they happen across. Sure, I have some pictures on there, and I'm even in some of them, and I've "liked" some stuff too, oh my, but I mostly use the service to stay in touch with certain people with whom I otherwise wouldn't be in touch and to share interesting or ridiculous or infuriating articles. Goodreads automatically lets everyone know what I'm reading (not seriously, if it's an ebook, obviously), mostly because I am under the delusion that all of my "friends" are precariously balanced on their seats' edges, waiting to see what I'll read next. And much as I hate to admit it, (but in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due), my now spouse and I reconnected across a couple thousand miles on the site almost 5 years ago, before it had become the monolith it is today. And... that's about it for me and the old FB. 

This particular piece is obviously not entirely about Facebook, and is well written and makes some valid points about our growing and disturbing obsession with technology, and about the dangers of mistaking the more sterile online connections for real-life connections. And he admits to his crankiness. 

But when coupled with his recent denigration of ebooks (and those unserious readers that read them) and his unspeakable irritation with Twitter of which he miraculously managed to speak, it just makes him sound like an ungrateful, clueless curmudgeon who refuses to admit the value and usefulness of some of these new technologies. 

I've already spoken of my distaste for snooty formatists, but let me reiterate. Get over yourselves. You prefer "real" books, fine, then don't buy an ereader and read only "real" books. That's your prerogative, and I have nothing against you for making your own personal reading choice. I myself embrace all formats. Franzen, clearly, does not

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...Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I'm handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing - that's reassuring. Someone worked really hard to make the language just right, just the way they wanted it. They were so sure of it that they printed it in ink, on paper. A screen always feels like we could delete that, change that, move it around. So for a literature-crazed person like me, it's just not permanent enough.

Okay, he's OCD, and he never feels finished with his work, and needs the physicality of printed text on paper to convince him that it's over, the book is done, so stop futzing with it. That's fine, but his lamentation of the "impermanence" of ebooks verses the "permanence" of paper books is just plain silly - look around! Nothing at all in life is permanent, buddy. Printed books are not permanent. Permanent implies unalterable, indestructible, will never not be there, etc. But "permanent" is just long-term temporary. But that's a philosophical discussion, to be saved for another time. Still: let's say my house burns down. (House, this is not an invitation to burn down. Please stay standing. I've knocked on wood and everything. I would thank you to remain a house.) All my physical books are destroyed, and so is my ereader. But hey look! I can get another ereader, and all my ebooks are still readily available! I'd even be convinced that the text hadn't changed. 

I'm really not dissing physical books - I love them. I have too many of them. But I also love the convenience of reading ebooks. (See former post for why.) I'm only saying that "permanence" is in the beholder's eye, and Franzen should allow for the existence of alternative preferences that are not ipso facto inferior to his own.

I can only conclude that Franzen is "opposed" to people like me, since he basically has deemed me a narcissist, a non-serious reader, and ultimately irresponsible, by virtue of the fact that I use Facebook, read ebooks, and tweet. So. I can't say I'm rushing out to read his novels, or to write about them, or tweet about them, or share that I'm reading them on Facebook. I'm sure he's a smart guy and all, but he should be a little more careful with his snobbery and insults. 
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