Tuesday, February 06, 2007
The Devil's Work in the Penny Press!
A great deal of interest in the week's harvestings from the Penny Press!
We'll start with the New Yorker and the brouhaha reported there over Google's much-ballyooed plan to scan bee-llions and bee-llions of books into a gigantic, enormous, gargantuan text-database that will be searchable in ever so many ways.
As with so much that Google does, your first response is 'well then, what's the possible harm that?' Such is the ultimate game-plan of the most powerful force in the Western world.
Apparently, though, there are those who do indeed find harm in the idea. Two different groups of plaintiffs are suing Google over the idea, according to Jeffrey Toobin's article on the whole subject in last week's issue.
As far as we here at Stevereads can tell (the issues get a bit murky, or at least murkily reported), the issue revolves around whether or not Google is telling the truth about what it's doing, and what it plans to do. Right now, it's scanning these bee-llions and bee-llions of books under a carefully-controlled regimen: works in the public domain will be fully scannable, fully readable, fully accessible. Works protected by copyright will only be available in 'snippets,' with the bulk of the work still available only through paying. And the vast middle-ground of printed works, the ones whose copyrights are somehow in doubt, well ... they're getting scanned too, and I guess we'll let gawd sort 'em out.
The bug up the ass of our plaintiffs is this: that Google is lying. That once they've scanned every book in the known universe, from medieval books of hours to the latest John Grisham, they won't, in fact, abide by 'snippets' like they promise. The basis of the case, so far as we can make it out, is that Google is simply too big to tell the truth.
But let's envision Google's version of things for a moment: an unprecedentedly gigantic book-database cross-indexed six ways from Sunday, with tantalizing tidbits of copyrighted stuff thrown in. Let's ignore the copyrighted stuff for a second and concentrate on Google's projected database of things for which no conceivable copyright claim could exist.
In other words, the many hundreds of thousands of good, worthy, and entirely forgotten books that molder untouched on library shelves all across the world. Books that you will never read even if their topics interest you, for the simple reason that you'll never know they exist. According to Toobin's article, Google is now scanning those books (or will be, once these lawsuits are settled, as everyone involved seems sure they will be) literally by the truckload, with the intent of making them readable, searchable, and cross-indexable to anybody with Internet access.
So you happen to hear one of the lovely hymns of Henry Francis Lyte and conceive a desire to learn more about him. You Google him, ironically enough, and perhaps you read a Wikipedia entry on him that, in Wikipedia's wacky way, has, shall we say, a playful, coquettish relationship with factual accuracy. Perhaps there's an audio file of 'Abide with Me.' But after that? If you're still curious, you better get out your beleagured credit card and spend time truffle-hunting on Alibris.
This projected Google database would change that process more dramatically than anything since Gutenberg. Lyte wrote volumes of poetry that were well-liked in his day, and there were at least two literary memoirs of him published in the mid-19th century. There've been considerable entries in hymnology reference works. All of this is not only long since out of print - it's also lock-solid certain to STAY out of print, if left to the devices of conventional publishing.
The sprawling, compulsively detailed journal John Quincy Adams kept throughout his long life on the world's stage? Likewise. The papers and letters of astonishing autodidact polymath Sir George Cayley? Likewise. The magisterial historical writings of Frantisek Palacky? Likewise.
Right now, if you're lucky enough to live near a first-rate research library (if you live almost anywhere between Cleveland and Salt Lake City, you probably aren't), and if you have several weeks to devote to your quest, you MIGHT be able to locate a couple of these works. In Google's proposed future, you'd be able to call them up at the touch of a button - and not only them, but works that have mentioned them.
With all due deference to litigious New Yorkers, such a future sounds like paradise.
The problem, as far as we can make it out, is that writers and publishers are afraid a) that Google isn't putting enough effort into determining whether or not the works it's scanning are, in fact, lapsed in copyright and b) that Google can't guarantee its copyrighted materials won't eventually find their way before the eyes of the public.
A) seems like sheer lunacy to us. If you're a major author and your copyrights are violated, well ... you're a major author! The courts are at your disposal, and Google has deep pockets. And if you're not a major author, if your best success in publishing landed you way, way back in the cheap seats of the midlist (or more likely, landed your dad there, or your grandfather, or your wacky uncle who nobody talks about), well ... are you saying you DON'T want two million people seeing your work who didn't see it before? Do you really think that isn't going to work out to your benefit?
No, the people who are worried here are retail publishers and bookstores (needlessly, since nothing, and that means absolutely NOTHING, will ever replace the feeling - the NEED - to curl up with a good book) and textbook publishers (deservedly, since after trial lawyers and CEOs, they're probably the most evil, money-grubbing SOBs in the country). What Google's proposing can only help the rest of us, wondering, as we are, what Pitt the Elder wrote about Cicero.
Names such as Pitt the Elder and Cicero don't enter into the standout story in last week's New York magazine - and delightfully so. 'Even Bitches Have Feelings' is by Vanessa Grigoriadis, and it's about the delicious rise and fall of publishing creaturatrix Judith Regan.
As should be obvious to everybody reading this blog, books are summitly important here at Stevereads. Books, literature, reading - the whole whirling world of it, highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, everything from the latest Musil translation to the latest "Smallville" novel. We search for quality everywhere we might find it - just like the rest of you.
That's why we're in the perfect position to tell you without doubt: Judith Regan is the Devil.
It's not just that she commissioned, bought, and publicized bad books. Tastes vary, after all, and not everybody is lucky enough to read this blog (and if by chance you ARE reading this blog, Ms. Regan - it's a longshot, admittedly, but still: none of us can be sure who Sebastian might currently be sleeping with - take our advice: stay away from publishing 100 percent entirely, forever. You are the Devil. Never even touch a book with your hands again).
No, it's not just that she championed bad books. And it's certainly not that she had a track record of hit bestsellers - one should never be faulted for having great instincts (although in this case it's distressing, since it makes her eventual return to publishing rather likelier than not).
No, the reason Judith Regan is the Devil is this: she championed anti-books. She championed - and got gigantic, other-author-pauperizing publishing deals for - books that are meant not to be read but to be SHOT UP, directly into the limbic system. Books that were conceived and packaged under the gross and cynical assumption that most of the book-buying public actively DISLIKES the act of reading. Anti-books, designed to GET YOU OFF in between video games.
Can it come as a surprise to ANYBODY, then, that the Devil would solicit a book from one of her foremost living minions, O.J. Simpson?
As some of you will know, we here at Stevereads think the O.J. Simpson trial was a twenty million dollar waste of the taxpayers' money. The suspect had motive, means, and opportunity, and he fled from the police. In any jurisdiction of any court in the entire history of jurisprudence, those four factors together obviate the need for a trial: they are in and of themselves an admission of guilt.
Nevertheless, the late great Johnnie Cochrane was a full-blown magician, and the American trial system respects the work of full-blown magicians, so O.J. Simpson walks unimpeded under the all-seeing sun.
And he's hurting for money, especially since a civil court found him guilty of killing his wife and her friend. That's where Judith Regan came in: she championed a book by Simpson, "If I Did It," in which he hypotheticizes about killing his wife. Regan is on record saying she viewed the book as a confession, which might or might not be true (she seems to have lied like it was a bodily function) - but one thing is certain: she didn't view the book as a BOOK. It was an event, a phenomenon, a happening, whatever you want to call it .... but it wasn't anything you sit down and READ - and more importantly, it wasn't anything you were SUPPOSED to sit down and read. Sitting down and reading ANYTHING ... actually reflecting on ANYTHING .... is and always has been antithetical to what the Devil wants. The Devil doesn't want readers - the Devil wants addicts.
Once Harpercollins and Rupert Murdoch fully realized what a noxious thing they'd been coerced to sign on for, they not only dropped the book, they dropped Judith Regan too.
This is hugely, overwhelmingly a good thing for the entire publishing industry. No shades of opinion: it's just a good thing. Judith Regan was a pea-brained potty-mouthed opportunistic misogynistic anti-Semitic manipulative least-common-denominator blabbermouthed force of Evil. Just the simple fact of her absence raises the publishing level of discourse across the board.
We can only hope there isn't some eager young Regan wannabe out there, dreaming of bagging a ten million dollar advance for a collection of Paris Hilton's text-messages ...