March 9, 2012


Is “Fahrenheit 451” about to become a greater reality than we imagine? Ray Bradbury’s story about a government’s attempt to destroy books may be a greater possibility than we think, according to a recent article in the February 17 issue of “The Week.” The warning came from writer Jonathan Franzen at a recent book festival. There he warned about the dangers of e-readers (“E-books: Open to government control”, “The Week” 2/12/12) He wasn’t talking about radiation or electronic pollution regulation but about the impermanence of material that exists, so to speak, in the clouds. Without a paper trail, he argued, an oppressive government could alter text with only a few people being the wiser.


Franzen’s paranoia has its place. History has shown that governments are not above attempting to censor or burn books they find offensive. To have one’s library on an e-reader may be to see it disappear with the flick of a government switch — a means of eradication far more convenient than massive bonfires. 

The author’s critics scoff at his notion and ask what’s more permanent than open-source digital texts that hang in the iclouds and are shared among millions of readers? Real books, they counter, go out of print or rot with age. Good points, of course. But unlike Franzen’s critics, I have no faith in the “safety in numbers” argument. Those who take that view have already forgotten that a few years ago, Kindle owners awoke one morning to find their copies of “Animal Farm” had vanished from their files. Overnight, Amazon had erased their e-readers, explaining that they’d run into copyright problems. No matter the reasonableness of their action, the event makes it clear that mass erasures are possible.

In any case, if we haven’t read the fine print in our e-book contract, Tom Sutcliff in the London “Independent” exhorts us to do so. E-books don’t belong to us just because we paid for them. They cannot be sold, lent or passed on to an heir.  What appears to be “ours” remains “theirs.”  In this brave new world, Franzen’s warning shouldn’t be taken lightly. After all, we’ve been warned by Joni Mitchell, haven’t we? We really “don’t know clouds at all.”*

* lyrics from the song, “Both Sides Now.”