Copyright, Joyce and the Messy Monstrous Beauty of "Ulysses"

As I turned to D.T. Max's story about the lawsuit that's been issued by Lawrence Lessig and Carol Schloss against Stephen James Joyce, I was quite sure whose side I was on.  Clearly Joyce's attempt to maintain iron-fisted control of his grandfather's work is an abuse of copyright, a threat to scholarship, an injustice against the world of literature and academic criticism, a perfect example of how far off-balance the copyright laws (and the enforcement of them) have gone.

And then, I was stopped in my tracks in the third paragraph.  Max quotes Joyce at a "1986 gathering of Joyceans in Copenhagen" explaining that

"Dubliners" and "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" can be "picked up, read, and enjoyed by virtually anybody without scholarly guides, theories, and intricate explanations, as can 'Ulysses,' if you forget about all the hue and cry."

Two years ago, when I announced to friends that I had booked a long weekend in mid-summer to re-read Ulysses in anticipation of my first trip to Dublin, I was greeted with amusement and mild derision.  "You're going to read it a second time?  The only people I know who've even made it through once are English professors!"

"No," I said.  "I'm going to read it a fourth time."  Amusement replaced by astonishment.

Then followed a discussion of the folly of the book's recent ranking as the greatest novel of the 20th century.

Ulysses has been crushed by the accumulated weight of a century of criticism.  The first that a young person would hear of it would be accompanied by descriptions of how difficult it is, how murky and puzzling.  Why would anyone want to read it?  Unless it's assigned for a class and you can't escape, you're best off staying well clear of it.  Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure this is the message that most people get.

And that's a terrible shame.  I haven't read every novel written in the 20th century so I can't venture to say that it's the greatest of all.  But certainly I've not read one that was more astonishing for its hilarious and tragically beautiful vision of the nobility of daily life.  The play of the language is great fun, certainly, but it's the human heart of the book that brings one to tears.  The experience of reading Ulysses, if one is willing to throw oneself into it with abandon, is to be plunged into the exotic grand wonder of human life itself, with a poignancy and a fullness and a directness that I've not encountered to the same degree in any other novel.

After four readings, do I understand every allusion and get every joke?  Of course not!  Do I still get lost and find myself tripping through paragraphs uncertain of my way?  Sure.  So what?  That's all part of the beauty of the experience.  I don't feel that I have to unravel every puzzle.  I certainly haven't unravelled every puzzle in my own life.  With luck, I've got enough years left to read it another three or four times and I don't expect to "get" the whole thing then either.

But who, now, realizes that you can plunge into the book that way?  A bright and curious teenager is going to be faced with it as a challenge, as a task, as something to be overcome, rather than something to be surrendered to.

The rational librarian/academic in me is rooting for Lessig & Schloss.  They're not trying to take the copyright away -- they're just trying to make sure that the boundaries are loose enough for study and learning and criticism and creativity to flourish.  I know that they're right.

But I think wistfully of how the lit crits have hijacked that great book and made it virtually unreadable, and my heart is with Stephen James Joyce.


Books Are More Than Containers

Maybe I just spend too much time thinking about this stuff, but I was kinda disappointed by Kevin Kelly's "Scan This Book" in the Sunday Times Magazine this week.  I guess I was hoping for something more dramatic.

He's spot on about the leveraging that can happen if we can get all of the book content digitized.  (It's really the same concept that Lynch is talking about in Open Computation, but broadened far beyond the scholarly literature.)  We're already beginning to see the kind of dynamism that can occur in a web world, and Kelly is good at expanding on that to envision the kinds of things that can happen when books go "liquid."

After a couple of sections outlining this vision, however, Kelly shifts his focus to what he sees as the main impediment to getting all of the books digitized as quickly as possible -- current copyright law.  I find little to disagree with in his analysis here, but most of it is pretty old hat to anybody who has been following the discussion for awhile (which, I should add, is likely only a small portion of NY Times Magazine readers, who probably won't be as jaded as me).   New to me, however, was his notion that in exchange for copyright protection a creator "has an obligation to allow that work to be searched" and I think that's a great concept.

My main gripe with the article, however, is that in his breathless excitement for the possibilities inherent in the "universal library" he unnecessarily overstates his case and, as is typical of net evangelists, undervalues the physical printed book.  "All new works will be born digital," he says.  "In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail."    What "clash"?

In his excitement about the digital world, he casts physical books as lonely, isolated, unconnected containers of content, yearning to be free and part of a community.  Once we liberate them, and enable them to join in the great conversation, who needs physical books anymore?

He quickly glides over the fact that books have never, in fact, been as isolated and lonely as he would project.  Every book that comes into being is part of that larger conversation, connected to the rest of human knowledge via the human beings that make up that conversation.  While it is quite true that the digital library he envisions is a qualitative leap in what one can make of that conversation, there's no need to overstate the case in order to make the point.

More importantly, however, he misses the fact that one of the most appealing qualities of the physical book is its physical nature in the first place.  The fact that I have digitized the content of a book, no matter how well that is done, does not mean that I have completely captured all that is valuable about that book.  I haven't captured the physical experience of it -- and that is part of what we value in books.    If the only thing that we valued about books was the content, why would there be so much variation in type design and paper and size and shape and color and artwork?  These are all aesthetic choices, designed to enhance the experience of interacting with a physical book. 

I own several editions of James Joyce's Ulysses.  When an expensive anniversary edition became available a couple of years back, I couldn't wait to get it.  I read it through over a long weekend, savoring not just the hilarious and rich humanity of Joyce's language, land & story, but loving the feel of the pages, the heft of the volume, and delighting in taking my own thick fountain pen to those pages to continue a private conversation with JJ.  I can do something like that with a digital version, but I can't do that.

This is not to argue that one of those experiences is better than the other, only to point out that they are different, and that both are valuable.  Having a digitized version of Ulysses in Kelly's universal library is obviously necessary and important -- but so is having a wonderful designed and presented physical volume.  We don't need to give up one in order to have the other.

A motion picture of a play doesn't replace a live play.  A photograph of a painting does not render painting superfluous.   The wide availability of recordings has surely not emptied concert halls and stadiums.  This is all so obvious, so why is it that so many people seem to think that the digital world and the print world are somehow in opposition to each other?

I am not, of course, suggesting that everything that is currently in print needs to continue in print.  Kelly's "all new works will be born digital" may be hyperbole, but in fact a very great deal of what currently comes into being in print is better off being born digital.    Never again having to deal with a cheaply bound 2-inch thick volume of poorly edited conference proceedings is indeed a blessing.  And for a library like mine, focused almost entirely on biomedical research literature, there will be very little, if any, need for print, in just a few years.  I see no cause for regret in that whatsoever.

Printed books & magazines will continue to have value, however, because of those very physical qualities.  How they will co-exist in the digital world, and what impact the "liquid" book will have on how we read & write & design physical books remains to be seen.  But certainly there's room for, and a need for, both.

I get teased for never going anywhere without my laptop and, truly, I can hardly imagine a day when I wouldn't spend at least a little time tap-tapping on the keyboard.  But I still always carry a fountain pen, and I use that every day, too.


Fandom

New books about Alabama football tumble out of the chute on about a weekly basis around here -- they're part of the local color.  When St. John's book first started getting bruited about, I didn't pay any more attention to it than to any of the others.  Jake did a signing for him, but knows me better than to even suggest that I might want to stop by.  I was vaguely aware that it was selling well.

Then I heard a lengthy review of it on an NPR show one day while driving to Tuscaloosa.  The reviewer (from New York) said that she'd approached it with some hesitation, since she's not by any means a fan, but that it turned out to be quite marvelous -- perhaps even more essential reading for the non-fan trying to understand the phenomenon than for the fan who's wanting another stopgap to slake their passion while they wait for the next game to start. 

It seems likely that I'll be spending the rest of my life here in the heart of college football fanaticism.  And, as I've discovered in the last couple of years in regard to Blazer Basketball, I'm not entirely immune to the development of an inner fan myself.  What I gleaned from the NPR review is that St. John went into this from a desire to better understand his own fan nature -- why do we care who wins and loses?  Why do we care so much that we become "fans"?  Maybe I oughta read this one after all.

When we stopped at Square Books on our winding way back from San Antonio, I came across a copy and decided it was time, so I picked it up (along with a Kinky Friedman collection, a new edition of Ezra Pound's Pisan Cantos, and the latest Jim Harrison novel).  Now I'm in the middle of a ten-day reading vacation, and finished it up yesterday.

St. John is a fine writer and has many marvelous stories to tell.  He's got a generous spirit, and doesn't hesitate to poke at his own fanaticism as he tries to understand it.  He's got a great ear for the Alabama accent, and transcribes just enough of it to get the flavor across without impeding the flow of the page.   He brings in a bit of  erudition and history to ground the book but never lets that get in the way of the fun.  I had a great time with it and I suppose that now I have a better appreciation for the depth and range of football fanaticism -- maybe I won't look down on it quite as much as I might have in the past.  That's a good thing as long as I'm living here.  So I'm grateful to St. John for writing it, and I wish him (and his team) every success -- I still don't expect to be going to any games any time soon, though.


On Writing Well

Lynn was browsing the bookshelves.  I was curious.  It was just after dinner, and I was finishing my wine, stretched out in my accustomed spot on the living room couch.   With all of the travel this spring, I haven't been keeping up with my daily reading, so I was only up to a February issue of the New York Review of Books, and a great article about Potemkin and Catherine the Great.  But I couldn't sink into it, distracted as I was by Lynn's systematic scanning of the shelves.

When we moved into this house (five years ago) we commingled our books.  (It was a big step).  But we arranged them only very loosely, so finding a given book that we think we have usually requires a careful hunt.  And there's a lot of  territory to cover.  She was obviously looking for something particular, but I knew better than to ask.  She wouldn't tell me until she was ready anyway.

She pulled one down and flipped through it.  "A-ha!" she cried.  "This is it!"

"Okay, what!?"

She came over and sat next to me, a big grin on her face.  "This is the book that you were reading in the library in Milwaukee."  She was holding Zinsser's "On Writing Well."

My JMLA editorial for the July issue is called "I See Blog People" and I lead into it by recounting a memory from my undergraduate days that involves my reading a few lines in a book, the title of which I can no longer recall.  Lynn, as cover editor, uses my editorial as the springboard for the cover design (I've tried to dissuade her from that approach, but with no success).  The July cover is due now, so she'd been reading and re-reading my essay, trying to come up with a cover idea.  She was convinced that Zinsser is the book I was reading.

I was sceptical.  "I don't know...  It doesn't quite feel right."  I was trying to get that memory to clear, trying to remember the color of the book, the context of the paragraph. 

She was a little crestfallen, thinking that she'd solved the mystery, and a bit disappointed that I wasn't going along with it.  "But look, this is exactly the way that you write!"  She read me a couple of passages that have the yellow college highlighter mark across them.  "And this is your copy, these are your highlights!"  (A yellow highlighter?  Did I ever really use a yellow highlighter in college?)

There's certainly no denying the influence that Zinsser's had on my writing.  I'm one of those who believes that the only guides to writing in American English that anyone needs are Zinsser and Strunk & White.  So why was I resisting?

Maybe it was just that I wanted it to remain mysterious.  That bit of memory marks a turning point for me.  I've been stringing words together on paper since I was five years old (that poem about Superman that I wrote while I was in bed with a fever), and by the time I got to college had filled many notebooks.  But it was only then that I began to understand writing as craft, and began to appreciate the mysterious and marvelous power of carefully constructed sentences, the dance that the writer goes through, creating sentences to express a thought, and then listening to the sentences themselves as they lead to new, and often startling thoughts that the writer didn't know were coming.  If I know that the book is Zinsser, then the iconic memory is altered, and I like it the way it is.

I often say that one of the reasons that I'm such a happy guy, in general, is that I live by the principle that in the absence of evidence to the contrary, I'll believe what it's most fun to believe.  I can't prove that this is the book I was reading, so I'm going to hold my memory inviolate, and not believe that it was Zinsser.

Even though it might have been. 


Pork Dinner

We were in San Antonio when Lynn first saw the email from the Alabama Booksmith.  Peter Kaminsky was going to be in town touring behind his new book Pig Perfect: Encounters with Remarkable Swine and Some Great Ways to Cook Them.   (He referred to it as his Pigapalooza Tour).  In honor of the occasion, Frank Stitt would be hosting a wine dinner at Bottega.  Given the swine emphasis of our recent odyssey, it was obviously the perfect way to put a final close to the events of the last two weeks.

So last night found us on the mezzanine with 34 other guests, eating a remarkable meal (Niman Ranch lardo, salame & pancetta while we mingled, a salad of pork cheeks and fava beans to start, with a main course of "porchetta, burgundy and brooklyn style" (recipe in the book), finishing up with a selection of cheeses and a bread pudding) accompanied by perfectly matched wines.  Jake was the supremely charming master of ceremonies, of course.   Kaminski was decidedly entertaining and gracious, reading a few passages from his book, and talking through a slide show describing his (and others) efforts to combat the factory farming of pigs by supporting artisanal farmers and producers. 

We try to go to wine dinners like this whenever our busy schedules allow.  We've never left one without having learned a few things, met a few interesting people, and having had some memorable conversations.  Throughout human history, the combination of good food, wine, and an interesting mix of people has been recognized as one of life's supreme joys.

Aside from the obesity epidemic, part of the tragedy of our overprocessed, fast food culture is that too many of us see food as nothing but fuel.  We eat on the run, or in front of tv, primarily so that we can keep running.  When I was growing up, in a catholic household, we prayed before every meal, and every meal was an occasion for conversation.  These days, I don't pray (in that sense), but I do take time to be grateful for every meal.  And every evening, when we're at home, Lynn and I eat together in the dining room, with a lit candle on the table, music in the background, a bottle of wine, and something that we've prepared by hand, be it as simple as a couple of grilled sausages, a boiled potato, and some steamed green beans.  It is always one of the best times of the day.


Writing in Books

I just finished "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," laughing uproariously all the way.  And all the while, by the way, scribbling like mad in the margins and in the back of the book.  I enjoy shocking people who are shocked by the notion of writing in books; but, secretly, I pity them.  Those who care about the matter deeply are, after all, people who care about reading & writing, but I fear they've confused the artifact for the art.  I would never consider writing in a borrowed book, or a library book, but one of the reasons that I buy, rather than borrow, books is so that I have the freedom to engage in that kind of repartee with the author. 

When I'm underlining and checking off and making marginal notes, I'm not (usually) trying to denote things to go back to later -- it's part of my engagement with the book in the moment of reading it.  I'm talking back to the author, and I consider it a mark of respect.  I paid $160 (or some such ridiculous amount) for the limited edition copy of Ulysses that I read over the summer, and I couldn't wait to put my pen to it.  It was a way of saying, "This copy, suckers, is mine!  And I have the right to talk back to James Joyce."

A couple of years ago, I was reading an essay by Sven Birkerts, in which he mentions his habit of putting the dates on which he's read them at the back of his books, so that when he goes back to re-read, he knows how long it's been since his previous visit.  I loved the notion and have tried to do something similar ever since -- at the very least a brief note of the date and circumstances of my reading.  Depending on my engagement with the book, I can end up with mini-essays: paragraphs that wouldn't fit in the margins of a particular page. 

The notion that a book should be as pristine after you've read it as when you began seems foul to me.  I want to wrestle it to the ground, get bloody with it, let some of my life seep into it, just as the book will seep into me.  The book that I've read had better come out of the encounter looking like it's been read, dammit!

(And did you notice that, in honor of Ms. Truss, I managed to use all of the punctuation marks?)


Note to Jake

Dear Jake, 

When I bought The Prince of Tides, you were a little uncertain as to
whether it'd be right for me.  You were thinking about the story he
tells, the very southern-ness of it, in light of the thorny, abstruse
nonfiction and poetry that you know I'm fond of.  I told you at the time
that I'd been sceptically dismissive of Conroy's work, having an abiding
distrust of best-sellerdom.  But then I read his intro to
Frank Stitt's
cookbook
.  I was stunned by the sentences and figured that anybody who
could string a bunch of them together like that was somebody I might
want to spend a little time with.  This week I'm taking a reading
vacation, and it seemed like the right time to give it a spin, so I
started it up about 10:00 yesterday morning.  Except for a respite for
dinner and a re-watching of "Big Fish" with Lynn (kind of an appropriate
movie under the circumstances), I read straight through until 3:30 this
morning when sleep finally caught up with me.   I started up again a
little before 10:00 today and just finished.

Now would you mind just ordering for me everything else the son of a
bitch has ever written?

T Scott