Pynchon and ebooks

This morning began with a link provided from Sarah T. of Girls Like Giants to this New York Times story about Thomas Pynchon’s decision to go ahead to let his books be sold as ebooks. This is usually the point where the Pynchon scholar (me – and yeah, I’m going to go ahead and say scholar. Maybe it’s the new PhD getting to me, but what the hell) rails against the electronic format and sings the virtues of paper.

Except I think this is a great idea.

I’ll begin with a couple caveats: I haven’t heard an argument against Pynchon’s decision yet. This post is just an attempt to think through some of the issues with ebooks. With that in mind, I’ll admit that I’ll never “seriously” read a book without the ability to physically mark up the pages and make marginal notes. It’s a practice deeply ingrained into my reading. (I still sit down to read on a Kindle with a pen or pencil in my hand when I’m not thinking about it). The technology has a long way to go before it can come close to replicating that experience.

The other side of the coin though is that I understand the draw of ereaders. When I’m reading for pleasure (that is with no expectation to research, teach, or write about a given book) I’ll sit down with an ebook just as easily as I will with a paperback. Often it will comes down to cost. If it’s an old title in the public domain, I’ll often go to Project Gutenberg to pick up a copy rather than pay for an overpriced trade paperback edition. Frankly, there’s something to be said for a $79 investment that gives you free access to all of this (just as a starting point). Obviously there’s more to the business than that, but I think it has the possibility being the equivalent of what lending libraries were to 19th century public literacy. (I obviously have caveats to that statement and other thoughts on ereaders, but that’s another post.)

But Pynchon’s work is a completely different category. I never sit down to read Pynchon without a pen in hand and a notebook nearby. I’ve published an article on him and he’s a chapter in my dissertation (the one that my committee liked the most I might add). I’m already planning another article. His work is, frankly, the most fascinating for me and the most fun to work on. (That last statement has earned me some odd looks in my time as a graduate student.) By all rights Pynchon should be the last author I’d want to read on a Kindle or equivalent device.

Here’s my reasoning: First, it will open up his work to a larger audience. One of the most compelling things about Pynchon’s work is that reading it tends to be like trying to solve a set of mysteries. This leads to the creation of an engaging community and one that I’ve always advocated for expanding.

Second: the ability to search the text. My copies of Pynchon’s novels are marked up to the point where I need notes on my notes. Flipping through a given book to find a particular half-remembered passage is a huge time investment. I’ve made my own reader’s companion for Against the Day (and have one in progress on Inherent Vice) that I ended up distributing to my dissertation committee so they could more easily review the book. Being able to search through these texts to find the passages I want will be invaluable for me as a scholar and a reader.

Third, it means you can easily take Pynchon’s work with you. I’ve hauled Against the Day around the country with me. I love my paperback copy, but the damn thing is huge. Same with Mason & Dixon (a particularly egregious offender until the most recent edition came out). Gravity’s Rainbow is a bit better. The disappearance of mass-market paperbacks for all but the best sellers has made these books that much harder to pack around when you need to. I’ve probably needed to more than most given my dissertation work. Still, the ability to take more than one of these books with me when traveling and to be able to cross-reference the different book? Sign me up.

Fourth, I’m a sucker. I like the promotional video.

More specifically, I like the animations of the titles for Lot 49, Against the Day, and Inherent Vice. The posthorn is a nice touch on Lot 49. The animation on Against the Day does a good job capturing the theme of double refraction. And let’s face it, the blinking neon of Inherent Vice is what we wish the normal book cover could do. I thought Gravity’s Rainbow was a good idea sold short. (I’m not as hot on the intro – slow down! We’re readers! If we can’t read the text you flash at us we can’t get excited about it. Also, not sure about the music.)

Last, but certainly not least, I think it’s a little awkward to try and make an argument for the “right” way to read Pynchon’s work. The author hasn’t made that case. He’s allowed these books to stand on their own for his entire career. This new publishing form will open them up to ways of reading that Pynchon never considered (insofar as it was a form that didn’t exist when he was writing the majority of his work). You could make the case that Pynchon’s reluctance to give the green light to this sooner suggests that he’s against ebooks altogether. It would be a fair argument, but I don’t think there’s enough information to make any definitive conclusions. There’s a business factor to all of this as well. Yet if we look at the theme of insurgency against and resistance to dominating power structures throughout his work (and yes, even those counter revolutionaries who fail) we get a pretty decent image of an author open to contingency and possibility. (Maybe we can even see this switch coming in Pynchon’s focus on the early internet and hacking in Inherent Vice.) Whatever the case, this move will make new readers and new readings of these texts, which will lead to new possibilities and interpretations. That can cause some trepidation, but ultimately I think it’s a reason for celebration, not condemnation.

(Addendum: I wanted to add another caveat. I’m not convinced about the pricing model of ebooks in general or what authors get from the profits. I don’t know enough to speak in detail about it, but it was an area I overlooked in this post.)

3 thoughts on “Pynchon and ebooks

  1. This comment is only tangentially related but when you wrote about how Pynchon hasn’t “made the case” for interpretation but, instead, “allowed these books to stand on their own for his entire career” it put me in mind of other authors who can’t leave well enough alone. Faulkner springs to mind as the most obvious and egregious example but lots of authors can’t let their babies go and grow into adult books. Or, to mix metaphors, they micro-manage their reception—and the books are worse for it. So cheers to Pynchon for letting people engage the work as it is, without extraneous clutter from himself. No doubt, his books are richer for the lack of meddling.

    1. You point to a distinction that I’ve thought about a lot during the dissertation. The distinction between Stegner and Pynchon really drove it home for me. (Stegner isn’t really the best example compared to authors like Faulkner, but when contrasted with Pynchon he stands out a bit.)

      That said, the first person I thought of when I read your comment was George Lucas.

  2. For me the greatest advantage of reading difficult novels (such as pynchon’s, and especially vocabulary heavy works like his) on kindle is the possibility of consulting a word in the built-in dictionary taking just a sec to do so.

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