E-books are a threat to justice and responsible self-government. Apparently. And here's naïve old me thinking they were just convenient tools for reading escapist novels.

Jonathan Franzen, bestselling author of The Corrections and Freedom declared last week that e-books were dangerously impermanent and ultimately a threat to society's most fundamental structures.

"I think, for serious readers, a sense of permanence has always been part of the experience," Franzen said while attending the Hay Literary Festival in Cartagena, Colombia. "Everything else in your life is fluid, but here is this text that doesn't change."

"Will there still be readers 50 years from now who feel that way?" pondered Franzen. "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."

According to Franzen, the problem with e-books is that "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."

Is that concern justified? Authors and publishers have an interest in the integrity and consistency of their work, so it seems unlikely they would tinker with the text of e-books after publication, or that doing so would go unnoticed.

But Franzen is concerned about what would happen to society if the printed book disappeared altogether, pushed into obsolescence by its digital counterpart. His fears about justice and self-government suggest something rather more sinister than mere author tinkering.

For me, Franzen's comments conjured up scenes of a dystopian society, rather like George Orwell's 1984, or Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. One night as we're all sleeping peacefully in our beds, our e-readers are silently and stealthily updated, amending the likes of Shakespeare, Churchill's speeches or the Bible to give credence to the regime's terrible deeds.

In theory, this manipulation of a global digital-only library would be easier to achieve and far more discrete than gathering and burning books. And without the paper record we'd have no way to prove the text ever said anything different.

Far fetched? Let's hope so. But the popularity of e-readers and e-books is on the rise both in New Zealand and overseas, and with the speed technology is moving, the future demise of the printed book may not be such an outlandish prospect.

I suspect Franzen is right that the disappearance of the physical book would mean more fundamental changes to the way our society operates than simply reducing our requirement for commercial forestry. So much of our knowledge, laws and history are recorded in books. While the internet has made documents, records and archives far more accessible to researchers and historians, there's still something important about knowing where the original source document is held and being able to see it or even touch it.

Call me old-fashioned (one day my grandchildren no-doubt will) but I don't like the idea of printed volumes disappearing altogether. For me, there's still something about the smell of books, the tactile thrill of turning the pages and finding the well-thumbed favourite passage. Beautiful photographic or art books just don't translate - yet - to the e-reader, and for those with an aesthetic eye, it's hard to compare a digital novel to the kind of physical book publishers term "a pretty", with rich embossed covers and gorgeous endpapers, like Owen Marshall's The Larnachs.

But I do think there's room for balance. Even 'serious readers' can be frequent travellers or public transport commuters, for whom a lightweight handbag or manbag-sized e-reading device is both practical and convenient. Such devices also provide free and virtually instant access to classics and out-of-copyright works, putting an extensive reference library literally at your fingertips. And do we really need to go on printing endless volumes of books, using up more resources and creating more things to store?

Besides, it seems even Franzen agrees there's room for balance. According to The Independent by October 2010, 35 per cent of his sales of Freedom were e-books.

Still, let's not do away with the printed volume just yet.

What do you think? Do serious readers read e-books? What would happen to society if the printed book become obsolete?