Reviewing the Review: May 14 2006

Bookish readers of today’s New York Times will turn first to the magazine, drawn in by Kevin Kelly’s cover article about “What Will Happen To Books?” in the age of Google. Noting that there are currently thousands of hourly workers busily scanning books around the world to feed into various corporate and academic search engines (as well as a few robotic scanning monsters doing the same job at places like Stanford University), Kelly’s article explains why book publishers are taking an automatic stand against this trend.

There’s nothing new about this controversy, but Kelly offers some valuable historical perspective, pointing out that book publishers have been voraciously lobbying to strengthen copyright laws in the USA since 1976, amounting to a near land-grab:

As more intellectual property became owned by corporations rather than by individuals, these corporations successfully lobbied Congress to keep extending the once-brief protection enabled by copyright in order to prevent works from returning to the public domain. With constant nudging, Congress moved the expiration date from 14 years to 28 to 42 and then to 56.

Never before in human history have book publishers been able to throw so much legal weight behind their elongated copyrights, and Kelly presents the new search engine companies that are brazenly building the world’s universal library as a corrective balance to this earlier sea change in publication law. I think it’s a damn good argument, and I concur with Kelly on most points.

I only wish the New York Times Magazine hadn’t chosen to hype the article with sensationalistic language on the cover (“Publisher, be very, very afraid” … “A manifesto by Kevin Kelly”). Every article that supports Google does not have to be called a manifesto. Nothing in Kelly’s well-reasoned article should make book publishers very afraid, but apparently the New York Times Magazine subsists on high drama and must present every debate in the starkest terms.

On to the Book Review, where Adam Begley makes a strong case for me to rush out and buy George Saunders’ appealing new book of stories, In Persuasion Nation. But poetry critic Langdon Hammer’s review of Franz Wright’s God’s Silence is disappointingly misdirected. It’s a safe bet that most readers of the Book Review are not highly familiar with Wright’s work, and an introductory approach would best serve the audience. Instead, Hammer busies himself by challenging Wright’s notions of morality and religion, leaving the vast majority of us poor souls who have not yet read God’s Silence out in the cold.

Roy Blount Jr. is supposed to be a good writer, right? Somebody explain to me how the hell to parse a sentence like this, in his review of Richard Lingeman’s Double Lives:

Clemens’ friend William Dean Howells, to be sure, was also a friend of Edith Wharton’s friend Henry James (who didn’t care for Clemens nor Clemens for him), but Howells spurned the overtures of H. L. Mencken’s friend Theodore Dreiser, whose bodacious improprieties in life and art Howells deplored (as did Mencken, eventually).

Thanks for clearing that up, Blount. I think Stamford’s book-digesting robot might even crash on that line.

But today’s issue redeems itself with an informative endpaper by John H. Summers about late sociologist C. Wright Mills, whose The Power Elite was published fifty years ago and feels quite relevant today:

At the pinnacle of the government, the military and the corporations, a small group of men made the decisions that reverberated “into each and every cranny” of American life.

They did that fifty years ago too? Of course, the Power Elite was then known as the “military-industrial complex”, whereas now we simply refer to it as “Dick Cheney”.

Finally, let’s move on to the Times’ already-infamous list of the 25 best American books of the past 25 years which the newspaper has, for some unknown reason, decided to compile. This is too easy a target and I don’t even want to take aim. I’ll just refer to Mark Sarvas’s excellent riposte, which points out that any selection process that produces a list this uninspired must be asking the wrong people. I also want to say that I’m becoming increasingly sick of the canonization of Philip Roth, who is undoubtedly a great writer but who did not write six of the twenty-five best books of the last twenty-five years. He just didn’t, and you know this too. I may have more to say about this later.

9 Responses

  1. I…like the name-dropping
    I…like the name-dropping paragraph

    I checked out a couple of things in the Times (as is my follow-the-leader reaction to your Sunday columns).

    Robert Wright’s review of “They Hate Us, They Really Hate Us” was quite interesting. Then thought I’d check out theater, and the one thing that caught my eye was “Lestat.” Thought that’d be good, but damn, what a blood-sucking review. So… on to London theater where “The Crucible” sounds like it’ll be worthwhile. (And my personal three-decade argument – does NY theater measure up to London?)( whispering: no, I don’t think so).

    And now yelling (to the Litkicks contributors who write some of the absolute best poetry you’ll find anywhere on this here planet) — ISN’T ANYBODY WRITING GOOD PLAYS ANYMORE?

    Finally, since I don’t read, I escape being offended by the 25 most popular novels; but hey – 25 best dramas: Copenhagen, Equus, Blue/Orange, An Inspector Calls…

  2. I’m Calling From Confedrcy of
    I’m Calling From Confedrcy of Dunces

    Where I’m Calling From and A Confederacy of Dunces are the only two books I would keep on that list. I couldn’t get into Ford’s book before but don’t remember why and never had the time to read Delillo because the books I tried were too slow.

    The first of the four Updike books listed is 1960. [Catch-22 WAS 1961.] I don’t understand how Heller didn’t make the list nor Norman Mailer. Only two women are listed. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is definitely a new archetype.
    Possibly the list is an example of groupthink, i.e., only an email address list of senior correspondents at the NYTBR was consulted.

  3. Stokey, I don’t know much
    Stokey, I don’t know much about plays, but I want to learn. I’m not really familiar with Copenhagen, Equus, Blue/Orange, or An Inspector Calls. Tell us more!

  4. Stokey — I’m pretty sure
    Stokey — I’m pretty sure Equus came out more than 25 years ago.

    Best play I’ve seen in the last 25 years? Torch Song Trilogy, by Harvey Feirstein.

  5. This is why the NY Times
    This is why the NY Times sucks

    Beloved? Number one?

    Jesus’ Son in the top 25? Did they read that book? What the fuss is about that book completely escapes me. But then again, I don’t have an MFA so I probably don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

    McCarthy, Updike and Roth take up half of the damn list. What a joke.

    And the worst mistake of all. . . they forgot about Fight Club. Just an oversight, I’m sure.

  6. Ha ha … well said, Malt.
    Ha ha … well said, Malt. Yeah, I don’t know if this cocktail party has ever even heard of Chuck Pahlaniuk (or Paul Auster, etc. etc).

    My biggest beef is the bizarre idea that a list of top 25 *American* novels is important. Who the hell cares if a novel is American or not?

    I was also going to go off on Beloved as the #1 choice, but then it occurred to me that I shouldn’t criticize a novel I never read. I bought it and I’m now reading it, which means I’m likely to be either criticizing or praising Beloved in these pages very shortly. Can you feel the suspense?

  7. Malt, you’re probably correct
    Malt, you’re probably correct about Fight Club. I say “probably” because I haven’t read it, but I’ve read two other Palahniuk books that I enjoyed very much, and I’ve heard so much about Fight Club and saw the movie, so yeah, Palahniuk seems to deserve a place in the top 25.

    Something tells me there are probably others, too, which I am forgetting.

  8. Except for Orwell and the
    Except for Orwell and the guys doing The Economist, Americans are the best writers I’ve read.

    I can’t read well in any other language but English but translations feel a shade inauthentic, e.g., having paper flowers rather than fresh ones.

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