Can the Kindle Save Anna Karenina?

Jonathan Franzen's e-book anxiety seems misplaced, considering that e-readers are keeping the classics alive

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Digital books

Last week, prize-winning novelist and occasional bomb-thrower Jonathan Franzen dismissed e-books as lacking a “sense of permanence.” Aside from the fact that e-books are very much here to stay and just might revive the book industry — between Dec. 26 and Jan. 1, the most popular format for 84% of USA Today‘s best selling books was electronic, and sales of e-readers this holiday season were double that of last year — Franzen was overlooking another factor that should be dear to any literary traditionalist’s heart: e-books are also keeping the classics alive.

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As any Kindle or Nook owner knows, e-reading devices come pre-loaded with at least one free literary classic, and the iBooks app for iPad includes Treasure Island. But that’s just the beginning; most works that have passed out of copyright and into the public domain — which includes everything published before 1923 — are available for download, free of charge. Before e-readers, if you wanted to own a classic you had to spend money on a produced physical artifact, whereas today the complete works of William Shakespeare can cost you as much as you’re paying to read this article.

Comprehensive statistics on downloads of free e-book editions of the classics are difficult to come by, but just one popular and long-lived resource, Project Gutenberg, has posted that more than 4.5 million e-book files have been downloaded by users in the last 30 days alone, with its list of most popular titles topped by Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and the Kama Sutra. The top five authors of the last thirty days are: Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens (who just celebrated his 200th birthday,) Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, and Jane Austen.

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I think e-readers just might lead to a renaissance for older works that were once relegated largely to English classes and book clubs, and here’s why. Electronic reading devices, regardless of make or model, are pricey. If you’ve just dropped a couple of bills on an iPad, Nook or Kindle, you may not be in the mood to pile on another $20 or $50 or $100 worth of the latest bestsellers to read on it, especially in the current economy. On the other hand, that pang of guilt you feel every time you pass Tolstoy or Austen sitting unopened on your shelf now has an electronic remedy and one that didn’t cost you more than a little download time. There are other advantages as well to reading the classics electronically—you can tap archaic words on the screen for an instant definition. And the weight of these doorstoppers isn’t an issue in e-format; as one respondent to my completely unscientific Twitter poll put it, “Finally finished Count of Monte Cristo because I could take it on the bus without blowing a vertebra.”

The downsides of digital versions — such as uneven copyediting and translation, not to mention the difficulty in sharing, signing and skimming the way one can with a hard copy — have been enumerated elsewhere, and convincingly so. Old-school bibliophiles needn’t worry; dead-tree books aren’t going anywhere either, least of all the books you already own. But my devices recently made it possible for me to load up on thousands of pages’ worth of classics without having to cull my physical shelves to make space for them. And nobody is more surprised than I am that I’m already a third of the way through Moby Dick for the first time.

In the alternate-universe thriller The Eyre Affair, author Jasper Fforde describes a 20th century world where literary classics and pop culture are one and the same. While we may still be a long way from Fforde’s vision of literary fandom, new technology is definitely giving the classics a shot in the arm. And if Jonathan Franzen is very lucky, our great-grandkids will be reading his works in some as-yet-unknown format long after our own cinder block-sized copies of Freedom have crumbled to dust.

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