Ebooks: More Boon to Literacy Than Threat to Democracy

By Carl Zimmer | January 31, 2012 11:28 am

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.

It’s been nearly 87 years since F. Scott’s Fitzgerald published his brief masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. Charles Scribner’s and Son issued the first hardback edition in April 1925, adorning its cover with a painting of a pair of eyes and lips floating on a blue field above a cityscape. Ten days after the book came out, Fitzgerald’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, sent him one of those heart-breaking notes a writer never wants to get: “SALES SITUATION DOUBTFUL EXCELLENT REVIEWS.”

The first printing of 20,870 copies sold sluggishly through the spring. Four months later, Scribner’s printed another 3,000 copies and then left it at that. After his earlier commercial successes, Fitzgerald was bitterly disappointed by The Great Gatsby. To Perkins and others, he offered various theories for the bad sales. He didn’t like how he had left the description of the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy. The title, he wrote to Perkins, was “only fair.”

Today I decided to go shopping for that 1925 edition on the antiquarian site Abebooks. If you want a copy of it, be ready to pay. Or perhaps get a mortgage. A shop in Woodstock, New York, called By Books Alone, has one copy for sale. The years have not been kind to it. The spine is faded, the front inner hinge is cracked, the iconic dust jacket is gone. And for this mediocre copy, you’ll pay a thousand dollars.

The price goes up from there. For a copy with a torn dustjacket, you’ll pay $17,150. Between the Covers in Gloucester, New Jersey, has the least expensive copy that’s in really good shape. And it’s yours for just $200,000.

By the time Fitzgerald died in 1940, his reputation—and that of The Great Gatsby—had petered away. “The promise of his brilliant career was never fulfilled,” The New York Times declared in their obituary. Only after his death did the novel begin to rise to the highest ranks of American literature. And its ascent was driven in large part by a new form of media: paperback books.

Paperbacks had skulked around the book business in the early 1900s, a crude format used mostly for pulp fiction. By the 1940s, however, paperbacks had gone legit. Printers had developed rugged, lightweight books held together by glue instead of stitching. Publishers like Penguin began to publish literature, including Fitzgerald’s work. The Armed Service Editions distributed 150,000 copies of The Great Gatsby to soldiers, and those uniformed readers recognized a great book for what it was. By the 1960s, it was a staple of high school English classes. I can remember getting my copy in 1980, that same pair of hovering eyes looking out the way they had 55 years earlier.

To read the 1925 edition would have been a much more luxurious experience, at least if my copy was still in good shape. The ubiquitous paperback is small, and its pages turn yellow fast. But it gets its essential job done: it lets people discover Fitzgerald’s great story. And it does so on a staggering scale. Instead of a handful of exquisitely expensive hardbacks, there are millions of cheap Gatsby paperbacks in the world.

My hunt for the hardcover Gatsby was inspired by the novelist Jonathan Franzen, who spoke earlier this week at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia. As Anita Singh reported in The Telegraph, Franzen delivered a rant against e-books.

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…The Great Gatsby was last updated in 1924. You don’t need it to be refreshed, do you?

It’s possible that Franzen’s full speech was nuanced, thoughtful, and persuasive. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, since I’m a longtime fan of his work. I first discovered Franzen through his 1992 book, Strong Motion, which he wrote long before he became a household name. He folds geology elegantly into the plot, which makes him an honorary science writer in my book. But if Singh’s report is accurate, I’m afraid that in this case Franzen’s just cantankerously wrong.

Franzen seems convinced that ebooks are about to drive print books extinct. That’s a bad thing, he thinks, because ebooks are so fluid.

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, its just not permanent enough.

He even thinks that democracy itself could be at risk.

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. But I do fear that it’s going to be very hard to make the world work if there’s no permanence like that. That kind of radical contingency is not compatible with a system of justice or responsible self-government.

To make the world work? I see the planet freezing in its rotation, governments reduced to hordes of zombies, all because the Kindle doesn’t feel quite substantial enough for Franzen. Let’s leave aside these strange apocalyptic ramblings. Let’s also leave aside the fact, as Rebecca Greenfield notes in The Atlantic, that a sizeable fraction of the copies of Franzen’s blockbuster hit Freedom are digital. We’re still left with a romantic revisionism.

Books were not frozen solid before the invention of the Kindle. Charles Darwin, for instance, rushed out The Origin of Species in 1859 in a fit of desperation, his hand forced by Alfred Russel Wallace’s near-simultaneous discovery of evolution. Darwin was not terribly happy with how the book turned out, and so he continued to revise it for decades, churning out six editions all told. He was perpetually adding clarifications, correcting typographical errors, removing arguments that he no longer liked. A century before computers, Darwin could not resist the urge to “delete that, change that, move it around.” And despite Darwin’s ebook-like compulsion to alter his own text, he still managed to establish the foundation of modern biology.

It’s certainly true that ebooks are an awkward young format that’s still sloppy and hard to manage. There are plenty of fly-by-night ebook editions of Fitzgerald’s writing, panned in customer reviews for their sloppy formatting. But you can also buy a Kindle edition of The Great Gatsby from, yes, Scribner—the same house that originally published the book in hardback.

Rather than set the world on fire with radical contigency, I expect that ebooks will follow much the same trajectory as paperbacks. They will start out being frowned upon as shabby, and then they will deliver literature conveniently to millions of people who might not otherwise have read it. In fact, I just discovered to my surprise that I no longer have my paperback copy of The Great Gatsby. It must have disappeared on one of my moves. To fill the gap, I’ve downloaded an ebook version, which I’m looking forward to rereading this evening. And for that, whether he likes it or not, I have Franzen to thank.

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  • Mary

    Ironically, my last engagement with The Great Gatsby was the full-text reading play version. It was a very interesting experience. I found my reaction quite similar to the book (I still hate every character). But it was a very effective way to interact with the material. And I don’t think it suffered badly from impermanence. Or put democracy at risk. It might have even exposed more people to the gin-soaked 1%.


  • TJ

    An eloquent non-refutation on several fronts!

    A critical difference between Darwin’s revising and Franzen’s concerns, which seem mostly overblown although with some precedence already, is that none of Darwin’s first five editions had gone down the memory hole in service of the sixth. The memory hole and related technological advancements are of real concern here. Given that the vendors of most ebook readers can remove files remotely (as has happened, of course, with Amazon and 1984); given that Amazon, Twitter, RIM, Yahoo, Google, and other companies in the business of transmitting information have already demonstrated a willingness to let the interaction of perceived business interests and government pressure (in the US, China, Saudi Arabia, and more) lead them to disable access, censor, or otherwise act in ways that enable coercion; and lastly given that paper and ink are physically for more stable than hard drives, CD-ROMS, or flash memory, all of which degrade on the order of 10 years–worse, I’d say, than even the cheapest of paperbacks–these issues Franzen has raised deserve to be refuted properly, and certainly with less recourse to ideology.

    I say all this as a proud owner of an ereader who only occasionally buys physical books, and who does it expressly for their permanence. And I offer that lest I be accused of atavistic romanticism.

    [CZ: TJ, I’d be delighted to have a discussion with you about the issues you raise. I think they’re important, and they ought to be worked out. But my response was to Franzen, not you. And Franzen has not thought about these issues carefully at all, at least judging from the reports of his talk.]

  • Nerdista

    I can’t believe Franzen is writing on paper, I mean, all serious literary folk are still loyal to stone tablets. Paper books aren’t going anywhere, I really don’t see why all the drama is necessary. We can, actually, enjoy both.

  • Rachel

    If the ICN has decided electronic publishing is OK for plant descriptions we’ll probably be able to survive with ebook novels :)

  • http://cedarsdigest.wordpress.com Cedar Riener

    I think you (and your readers) would enjoy Ben Fry’s visualization of the changes that Darwin made in Origin over time.

    [CZ: Thanks. I will add a link to the text. That’s an amazing piece of work!]

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @TJ: Thanks for the comment. Do you happen to know if libraries have made any efforts to record the content of various editions of ebooks? Is it technically impossible/infeasible? Maybe this will be a new, important function of libraries in the digital age: preserving (in print?) the digital content that megacorps don’t care to save—or actively want to destroy/take away.

    I do think that preserving all the various digital versions of a work provides the best opportunity to really compare how it changes over time. For instance, if you study the visualization of Origin of Species that Cedar linked to above, you can show how the book changed much more easily than if you were sitting down and cross-checking between six different print editions. Which—speaking of 1984—is probably what O’Brien would have subjected me to, that being about the worst thing I could possibly imagine.

  • http://kylecassidy.com kyle cassidy

    I suspect that books will still be around in 50 years and people will still be buying them. Having an ebook reader doesn’t stop me from buying bound books, but it does change the sort of bound books that I buy and it also changes the availability of books you have on hand. One of the often overlooked & empowering advantages of ebooks is that it provides instant (and free) access to an enormous amount of literature which is no longer in print or at least hard to find. Project Gutenberg has some thirty or forty books by Jules Verne of which my local bookstore carries perhaps three. There will be space in people’s libraries for both varieties for a long time.

  • Don

    Well said. Just as TV did not spell the end of film so the ebook does not spell the end of the bound book. The publishing industry is evolving–and it needed a kick in the pants.

    It’s amusing to learn here that in his disappointment Fitzgerald couldn’t resist a dig at Perkins over the novel’s title, one that Scribner’s and Perkins had insisted on. Fitzgerald want to call it TREMALCHIO IN WEST EGG.

  • http://www.chicago68.com Dean

    “Let’s leave aside these strange apocalyptic ramblings.” No more strange than George Orwell in his novel 1984. The consequences of the fluidity of text are spelled out clearly there.

  • Diane

    It’s so interesting that people see DOOM in e-readers. Just because the medium feels impermanent does not mean that it is. And books are hardly permanent, either. They fall apart and lose pages, yellow (as you noted), turn brittle or soggy, and can be burned quite spectacularly.

    Each form has pros and cons, and so I use both, taking advantage of each. I read as much as ever.

  • John Kubie

    I had read of Fitzgerald’s late to change the title. Would have been a disaster. I’ve always loved and been mesmerized by the title. When I was young I confused it with “The Great Gildersleeve” and I probably still do.

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  • http://blog.edwardbrydon.com Ed

    A very interesting reply and debate in general. I am inclined to agree with you Carl, the march of progress and the democratization of media is seemingly relentless. Nostalgia for things dies out with each successive generation. I am sure people lamented the demise of the ocean-going liner when air-travel became available to the masses – something about it being the journey rather than the destination. We want less barriers to our consumption – that is the reductionist tendency of the human race.

    To TJ: I am sure that when paper was invented it was too fragile a medium for books, and scrolls were useless for writing and reading long prose. It wasn’t until moveable type came to Europe that books – bound volumes – became media. Even then it took plenty of time to perfect the medium and eventually for it to be available to the masses. Online and digital eBooks are in the early stages of development. As Carl said they can be very sloppy. However, technology moves at an ever increasing rate so each new iteration should spread out among the developers and they will get better. At this increasing rate of development though they may well be overtaken by another media before the next couple of generations.

    The same can be said for the digital volumes they are stored on. I’d disagree that apper and ink are going to be more stable. Data gets moved to new and improved HDs when they become available so the longevity is really as long as the data exists not the longevity of a single HD at any one point in time. I have digital photos archived from over 6 years ago. just because they reside in the digital format does not mean they are not stable. And those photos have been through several computers and HDs. In addition central repositories, such as at Amazon or Google, are likely backed up redundantly multiple times to protect said data. I do that with my own documents, music and photos too.

    As for censorship via Government or corporate acts this has existed since print was put to page. Papyrus and paper are notoriously flammable (see stability above), especially in the hands of Nazi’s for example! Yet the works censored continue to exist because they were filed away by someone caring enough to do so. I imagine a similar scenario with censored digital data today that resides on someone’s HD after being censored in the public domain. These are all temporary barriers as the technology progresses.

    Believe me, I also love books, but like Kyle above, digital media is changing what solid media I buy and for what purpose – be it books, music etc.

  • hudasx

    I have two young sons: one in college, another in high school, both tech-savvy, avid readers. Neither one has asked to read from my ereader. Paper books will be around for at least another generation not because they are “permanent and unalterable” but because today’s readers still find them easier to read from.

    I writer I know used to lament the rise of word processors and kept using his manual typewriter for years. He eventually realized it was a silly romantic stunt.

    Ebooks are now being shared illegally like mp3s. If ereaders become so cheap that they become as ubiquitous as cell phones in developing countries, we should rejoice in a world made more literate.

  • Michelle M

    I love my e-reader. There are drawbacks. I usually like to peek at the ending , which is more difficult with e-readers. It’s harder to make notes , but I use mine for leisure reading, so that’s not an issue with me. But I still spend money on certain hardbacks, like field guides. Sometimes you just have to flip around the pages, find a well-used section, go directly to a page, etc… It’s not quite so easy with e-books.

  • grandmashirley

    I’m looking forward to getting an e-reader because I don’t have any more room for shelves for the books I already own.

  • Kaethe

    Counter anecdote: I have two daughters: one in middle school, one in elementary school, both tech-savvy, avid readers. They both love my ereader and have borrowed it repeatedly. One got her own Kindle for her birthday. The other has already expressed her desire for the same. They love the instant delivery, no need to carry heavy books around, and always having something to read. They’re both eager for our local library system to make Kindle copies available for check out. We have so far managed to avoid pirating music and books, preferring instead to reward our favorites for the efforts.

  • John Kwok

    There will always be a market for books published on paper. How large a market that will be will depend of course on public interest; in other words, it will be the market that shall determine to what extent printed books, not e-books, will be available for sale at bookstores. IDespite the recent demise of Borders, I am aware that local independent bookstores are thriving; for example, I know of two in Brooklyn that have opened in the last two years, and one of these, Greenlight, is definitely regarded as one of Brooklyn’s premier bookstores.

    My own personal preference is for the printed page and I can’t see myself ever acquiring an e-reader (Though I know one writer, Gary Shteyngart, who will sign e-readers at his literary events!). I believe books will endure only because paper may prove to be more durable than electronic media over time. But that, I concede, is based on my own faith, not on what the future may hold with regards to the ultimate success or failure of e-books.

  • http://www.sciencecomedian.com Brian Malow

    Interestingly, Annalee Newitz over at io9.com has a new story about a new PRINT edition of a classic science fiction book – “The Space Merchants” by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. Originally published in 1953, it’s a satire of the advertising industry that might be more relevant today than when it was written. So, for a modern audience, the surviving author, Pohl, chose to update some of the corporate references to include modern companies and to correct some science inaccuracies. According to Newitz, the changes are largely cosmetic, the story unchanged.


    I have an old unread version of the original novel. And that’s the version I will choose to read because I want to read the classic book as it originally appeared. But I do have that choice. And I respect the author’s right to make it possible.

    For Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” however, I would choose to read the final version he approved. And I also intend to read the recent, updated version of Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene.”

  • Michelle M

    What is worse for the neighborhood bookstore than ebooks is the ability to use your phone to scan the ISBN number, and then comparison shop online while you are in the store. It doesn’t seem right and I wouldn’t blame bookstores for blocking cellphone access in their stores!!!!!

  • Brian Too

    Advantage for books:

    The format is nearly universal, as all it requires is a (literate) human being.

    Advantage for e-readers:

    Vastly reduced space requirements. Over time the information density can be seen as effectively unlimited. Ability to search and correlate multiple books. Ability to use the text in ways the publisher did not necessarily forsee. Ability to create live links to other sources. Support for services like dictionary and thesaurus. Eventually language translation services may become available. Also, book content is not necessarily static, but can include dynamic interactive models, diagrams, reader feedback, and so on.

  • http://lablemminglounge.blogspot.com Lab Lemming

    One of the main problems with e-books is that that are so easy to publish. On amazon.com , you can even self-publish.

    This is a much more fundamental change then the format on which a book is printed. Changing from hardcover to paperback didn’t cut the editor out of the loop, for example. E-books could easily do that.

    If an ebook was just an add-on to a traditional publishing run, like a paperback, then everything would be fine. But cutting out editors and reducing the diversity of publishing houses in favor of automated online retailers could certainly impact the quality of disseminated literary works.

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  • RJ

    The format is irrelevant, I remember the plots, characters, and descriptions I’ve read in the past but can rarely remember if I own the paperback or hardcover version. The same will apply to the ebook version.

    Lab Lemming, I could state, for myself, just the opposite of your post. One of the most awesome things about ebooks is… Like peer review, the competent and entertaining writers will rise to the top, but now you and I can discover the next Richard Bachman without having to wait decades for some elite publishing machine to turn him into Steven King first.

  • floodmouse

    eBooks are great as long as print books are still available. The problem is what happens if all the eContent can be controlled by a central source, like a government. It wouldn’t be too nice if 50 years after you die, some government issues a version of your work, under your name, that contains ideas completely opposite to the ones you really advocated. Unless someone has a print book on a shelf, and the hard copy doesn’t get confiscated, who would even know? eBooks would be more stable if the technology guaranteed you could own copies on storage devices that no one can mess with remotely, but I’m not sure that will be the case.

  • Gypsy

    As little as two years ago, I had three bookstores within easy walking distance of my house. I now have none. Online retail and e-books are changing the way we read and shop. Do I miss my Saturday morning wanderings around the book store with my coffee? Do I worry that my new-born son will never know the joys of a building filled to the brim with paper, glue and ink?

    Yes and yes.

    In order to maintain my addiction, I’ve had to adapt. I bought an iPad. I now buy eBooks. The ones I really like, I buy print editions of. Do I feel guilty about enabling the demise of the physical book store? Do I revel in the out of print books I would never have found in a real book store that are now only a click away?

    Again, yes and yes.

  • Peter

    Just an edit remark: Franzen’s quote is not delineated by formatting or quote marks-at least in the mobile version-confusing for someone who may not have read the original.

    Ed: Thanks for the heads-up, Peter. It’s indented on the desktop version, but apparently that formatting didn’t make it to the mobile version. We’ll have to fix that up.

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  • http://socraticgadfly.blogspot.com SocraticGadfly

    That said, to the degree ebooks feed hypercapitalism, and, along with it, ebook spam by Amazon (it’s bad about it, and others may follow in its tracks), concerns about ebooks aren’t totally misplaced, either. And, IMO, the paperback:hardback analogy only modestly correlates with the ebook:”hardcopy” parallel.

  • http://doniganmerritt.com Donigan Merritt

    I agree with Franzen.

    You lost me when you went to sarcasm to make a point.

    I also agree with Leb Lemming, above.

  • Malcolm

    In regards to your last point, who in this country doesn’t have access to books? No one. Ebooks, being ephemeral, might actually hurt in that regard. As far as regions of the world where people don’t have many books, the barriers of literacy and language are far more of a problem than physical distribution, the cost of the infrastructure for ebooks is far greater to build and maintain than carting in a pile of discarded paper.

    I don’t think penny dreadfuls and paperbacks increased access to books, there were certainly bestsellers before paperbacks, but they did increase the number of things that were being published. That, however, is a seperate issue.

  • ms annette1

    I appreciate this idea of E-book, In a real sense, I feel saddened about losing this aspect of a ‘hard cover’ book however, technology isn’t going away. So we can either get behind it or get lost by it. I for one, will not be left in “dark ages” of literature. Personally, the only thing that really matter, the idea of good writing is still very much apart of culture. #The written word will never die, just the way it is transmitted.


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About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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