Many of us crave interaction with the authors of our favorite books. We “follow” them on Twitter, “like” them on Facebook, read their blogs, write them emails, and/or maybe, just maybe in these digital times, even send them a handwritten letter. Remember the days when the U.S. Postal Service delivered more than bad news (as certified letters always are), bills, and junk mail?
Well, obviously, those days are largely gone. An increasing portion of our interactions occurs through our laptops, cell phones, and tablets, rather than by face-to-face communication.
By now, most of us are familiar with the arguments against these forms of communication. An example of such a rant came last month from Jonathan Franzen, a recurring real-life “Chicken Little.”* In a dense essay called “What’s Wrong with the Modern World?,” Franken makes several questionable statements, including a dubious analogy between Twitter and cigarettes as he longs for the “steadiness” of being age 53 in the High Middle Ages (forgetting, for a moment, that most people who made it out of childhood were dead by age 53, often by way of The Crusades, depending on where you lived during that time).** Nevertheless, his point isn’t as easy to dismiss as his roundabout way of getting there: our reliance on modern technology does indeed have its drawbacks.
To Franzen, writing from the perspective of a traditionally published author of literary fiction, some of these drawbacks include:
the physical book goes on the endangered-species list … responsible book reviewers go extinct … independent bookstores disappear … literary novelists are conscripted into Jennifer-Weinerish self-promotion … the Big Six publishers get killed and devoured by Amazon…
As a reader and “amateur writer,” as someone called me recently, some of Franzen’s concerns don’t bother me as much as they bother him. Others on his list do, such as the disappearance of independent bookstores and the growing power of a single for-profit company, Amazon. Another possible drawback is the decrease in “face to face” interactions, which could have implications on our ability to empathize and sympathize with other people and to understand the repercussions of our actions.
As a perpetual optimist, despite my tendency to complain, I assume that we will be able to address whatever drawbacks technological innovation throws our way without returning to the Middle Ages. The answers could come from more technological innovation, more consumer-friendly judges, and better laws, particularly in the area of anti-trust so that we don’t have to fear what Franzen calls “the human and cultural costs of Amazonian hegemony.” Let’s not forget, though, that five of the six entities Franzen sees as important for defeating Amazon’s dominance had illegally conspired with Apple to restrain trade. Collusive behavior is dangerous whether it’s to keep prices up to maintain the old order or to keep prices artificially low to usher in a new order. Substituting a single-company monopoly for a multi-company monopoly is no improvement.
Over the last two weeks, Apple made the news again for filing an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to patent technology that will allow authors to sign e-books. As I understand the application, Apple claims that its autographing system takes the current available technology a step further by allowing authors to sign fans’ e-books while their devices are within “a coverage area capable of communicating” with each other. So, with Apple’s system, fans can, for example, go to a book signing, meet their favorite author, and receive a personalized message on their e-book that has been authenticated as truly coming from the author.
This technology appears to further legitimize e-books while also encouraging a direct, face-to-face interaction between authors and fans. It may also increase the numbers of people stopping at their local bookstores and libraries for events.
E-book autographs aren’t new. A more remote way of doing it than Apple proposes is available on Authorgraph. I’ve never tried this service, but based on the descriptions I’ve read, I’ve gathered that readers can browse the authors willing to provide electronic signatures (Jonathan Franzen isn’t on the list) and request a handwritten autograph, which arrives in a PDF format. This is similar to how fans of yore sent letters to authors in an effort, much to author E.B. White’s dismay, to get to know the man or woman “behind the book” (in some cases, the response was nothing more than a form completed by the celebrity’s family member or employee).
E-book autographs are different in other ways, though. Some hardcopies of celebrity signatures sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars, but that can’t happen when the signature is on a device/item that the fan doesn’t even own. We license our ebooks, rather than own them, and to the extent the electronic handwritten signature is saved somewhere else on the device, the lifespan of such devices likely isn’t the same as a paper book. Will Apple’s authentication still work in fifty years when today’s college students try to give an autographed copy of their favorite college book to a grandchild just starting as a freshman? I have my doubts.
So, for those electronic autographs that come after face-to-face encounters or are at least accompanied by personalized messages, the real value is purely sentimental. It reminds us of a positive experience we’ve had—a brush with a celebrity—which is valuable in the hearts and minds of many. It may make a seemingly impersonal modern world feel a little more human.
Image: Franzen’s words inspired my husband to create a grumpy cat meme.
*Many people wrote about Franzen last month (see, for example, Critical Margins).
**Franzen writes, “Maybe people will get as sick of Twitter as they once got sick of cigarettes.” Well, only the latter actually makes you sick. A figurative “cancer” isn’t the same as a literal one. Franzen also writes, “If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at 53, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending.”