Wednesday, April 30, 2014

'Mockingbird' flies for new generation -- April 30, 2014 column


As millions of Americans rushed to embrace the ebook, some of our best-loved authors defied the trend. 

“An ebook is not a book,” E.L. Doctorow, author of “Ragtime” and “The Book of Daniel,” declared last year when he received a lifetime achievement award from the National Book Foundation.

Bestselling author Jonathan Franzen has warned readers that they’re being duped into thinking they need electronic devices for reading.

“The technology I like is the American paperback edition of `Freedom.’ I can spill water on it and it would still work. So it’s pretty good technology,” Franzen said at a literary conference in Cartagena, Colombia, in 2012, the Daily Telegraph reported.

“And what’s more, it will work great 10 years from now. So no wonder the capitalists hate it. It’s a bad business model,” he said.

Harper Lee, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning “To Kill a Mockingbird” has sold more than 30 million copies in 40 languages, wrote fellow book-lover Oprah Winfrey in 2006:  

“Can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up – some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.”

You can read Doctorow’s and Franzen’s books in digital “cold metal,” despite the authors’ misgivings. Until now, though, if you wanted to curl up with Scout, Jem and Atticus Finch and read about injustice and heroism in the South, you held a book with soft pages. Many readers still do. It still sells upwards of 1 million copies a year.

Lee, who is called Miss Nelle in her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., – Harper is her middle name -- was one of the few authors holding out for the print book. She resisted the ephemeral incursion until her 88th birthday, last Monday.

HarperCollins announced that digital versions of Mockingbird will be released July 8, the 54th anniversary of the book’s publication.

“I’m still old-fashioned. I love dusty old books and libraries,” Lee said in a statement released by her publisher. “This is Mockingbird for a new generation.”

The reclusive Lee didn’t explain why she decided to send her masterpiece into the digital age, but you can bet she worried over it. In her letter published in O magazine in July 2006, Lee recalled growing up with books in a family of readers.

“So I arrived in the first grade, literate, with a curious cultural assimilation of American history, romance, the Rover Boys, Rapunzel, and the Mobile Press. Early signs of genius? Far from it. Reading was an accomplishment I shared with several local contemporaries. Why this endemic precocity? Because in my hometown, a remote village in the early 1930s, youngsters had little to do but read. A movie? Not often…A park for games? Not a hope,” she wrote.

“Now 75 years later in an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books,” she added. 

Doctorow, 83, who will receive this year's Library of Congress Prize for Fiction, also talks about being a prodigious book reader as a child. He too still plods along with books. But he warns today's authors not to lose heart the way naturalistic novelist Frank Norris did in the late 19th century.

“Norris despaired of the Western Union telegram – 10 words and stop – the Twitter of its day. He feared it was the end of literary discourse. If people could express themselves completely in 10 words, the human mind would eventually be inaccessible to works of 100,000 words,” Doctorow said at the National Book Foundation event.

Norris also regarded the typewriter as the enemy of creativity, believing that much was lost when writing wasn’t done by hand.

“We don’t want to be today’s Norris – silly fellow he was,” Doctorow said. Could he have been thinking of Franzen, who hates Twitter and says it’s doubtful anyone with an internet connection can write decent fiction?

Better to be tolerant of change than to cling to the past. Harper Lee has it about right. It’s time for a new generation to discover Mockingbird.

So, young readers, if you choose to curl up in bed with a computer, that’s OK. Just don’t spill water on it.

© 2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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