The Eutobiography of Benjamin Franklin

CP377 Signet Classic 60 cents c 1961

What would Benjamin Franklin, electrical experimenter and founder of our first public library, have thought of today’s electronic readers? 

Of his first attempt at building a public library, he says, “…reading became fashionable; and our people, having no public amusements to divert their attention from study, became better acquainted with books…” (90), and he claims strangers noted the effects. 

Having successfully completed the kite experiment, he invents the lightning rod (234-236), but he doesn’t seem to know when he’s having a good time: “Reading was the only amusement I allowed myself. I spent no time in taverns, games, or frolics of any kind” (91). Apparently, flying a kite in a lightning storm with one’s son is not frolicsome. 

Early he had been turned into a practical person: “I now took a fancy to poetry and made some little pieces…They were wretched stuff, in street ballad style…,” but “the first sold prodigiously”; nevertheless, “my father discouraged me by ridiculing my performances and telling me verse-makers were generally beggars” (27). 

The first library consisted of collective contributions – electronic books could not have been so shared. Nor printed, nor borrowed: “This bookish inclination at length determined my father to make me a printer…Often I sat up in my room reading the greatest part of the night, when the book was borrowed in the evening and to be returned early in the morning, lest it should be found missing or wanted” (26-27). 

Franklin thought men most satisfied when employed, and best employed when able to handle their work independently from start to finish. He wrote of cleanliness, but lived, as we always do, in a time of muddiness. EBooks can’t be loaned or borrowed or returned. No foxing of the pages, no crimping, no dog-eared dirty garage sale wet basement copies. EBooks can’t be gifted, dedicated to someone we love, later to be second-handed at the local book sale, the dedication a fiction within a fiction. EBooks are to print books as cars are to walking, as the transistor radio is to live music, as a televised game is to the loose frapping of the ballpark. 

We’re not sure what Franklin the scientist and printer would have preferred: book or electronic reader. “A book, indeed, sometimes debauched me from my work” (79). But for such debauchery, acoustic or electric should work.