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Why are we still reading Dickens?

Charles-Dickens-001

As someone who teaches and writes about Dickens, the question of why we still read him is something that’s often on my mind. But that question was never more troubling than one day, nearly 10 years ago, when I was standing as a guest speaker in front of a class of about 30 high school students. I had been speaking for about 20 minutes with an 1850 copy of David Copperfield in my hand, telling the students that for Victorian readers, Dickens’s writing was very much a “tune-in-next-week” type of thing that generated trends and crazes, much as their own TV shows did for them today.

Then a hand shot up in the middle of the room.

“But why should we still read this stuff?”

I was speechless because in that moment I realised that, though I had begun a PhD dissertation on Dickens, I had never pondered the question myself.

The answer I gave was acceptable: “Because he teaches you how to think,” I said. But lots of writers can teach you how to think, and I knew that wasn’t really the reason.

The question nagged me for years, and for years I told myself answers, but never with complete satisfaction. We read Dickens not just because he was a man of his own times, but because he was a man for our times as well. We read Dickens because his perception and investigation of the human psyche is deep, precise, and illuminating, and because he tells us things about ourselves by portraying personality traits and habits that might seem all too familiar. His messages about poverty and charity have travelled through decades, and we can learn from the experiences of his characters almost as easily as we can learn from our own experiences.

These are all wonderful reasons to read Dickens. But these are not exactly the reasons why I read Dickens.

My search for an answer continued but never with success, until one year the little flicker came – not surprisingly – from another high school student ()

Poetry in translation takes off

Poets steal. T.S. Eliot concealed this offhand assertion in plain sight 90 years ago in his essay on English playwright Philip Massinger: “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal.” It had the effect of recalibrating readers’ expectations for originality. All readers. Granted, this was the same effect Emerson achieved in his essay, “Quotation and Originality,” but the recursion supports Eliot’s point. Literary culture alternates between those periods when it refuses to look at anything new, and those when almost nothing like the old is allowed. As for the literary influence of other times and places, the emphasis shifts between defensive isolation and expansive engagement. At the moment, major anthologies of contemporary poetry from Germany, Russia, and Vietnam are appearing in the United States. Though the influence of these poetries on American letters has been muted, or at least restricted to a narrow list of headliners for the last fifty years, that may be about to change.

Where Emerson insisted that “genius borrows nobly,” Eliot used his borrowing to establish a hierarchy of poets, with small-time artisans at the bottom, and at the top, barons of text who, having identified valuable resources to extract as well as a means of converting them to finished goods, integrate operations vertically, overseeing the marketing plan right down to the reviews. This makes it sound like a world-historical crime, but there is a motive on the up-and-up for this behavior: in order to stop talking about themselves, to be inspired, to say something recognizable in an unfamiliar way, poets make believe, generalize, extrapolate from an overspecific detail, and otherwise appropriate what is not theirs. Translation and signaling foreign influence are some of the more prestigious means to effect this escape from the self and its unchallengeable rules, even if they only lead to alien rules, equally unchallengeable. Indeed, Eliot, a bit of a rule freak, emphasized both the importance of stealing from sources “remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest,” and making what is taken into something better. ()

Elgan: What’s wrong with eBooks?

You stayed up late last night reading your hardcover print edition of “The Enchantress of Florence” by Salman Rushdie. It’s just too good to put down.

During breakfast, when you normally read The New York Times on your Kindle eBook reader, you felt compelled to read the Kindle version of your book instead.

The second you get into your car, you punch up the audio version, and let Rushdie himself read to you on the way to work.

During your lunch break, you visit the DMV to renew your driver’s license. The wait is 15 minutes, so you whip out your iPhone and keep on reading. You’re loving the fact that you bought all versions of the book in the $34.99 bundled edition.

Unfortunately, this whole scenario is pure fiction. Sure, “reading” a book on multiple formats is easy. The fairy tale is the price. It could actually cost you $76.34 to buy all copies. (The hardcover print copy costs $29.98 at Barnes & Noble; the Kindle version costs $9.99 at Amazon.com; and the audio version costs $36.37 at Audible.com.)

Can someone explain this to me? Since 99% of the value of a book is created before it’s spun off into multiple formats, why does that additional 1% of value cost between 30% and 300%?

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Google Working to Revise Digital Books Settlement

The Justice Department’s filing on Friday, echoing other critics, said that the settlement could give Google a virtually exclusive license to millions of out-of-print “orphan books,” whose rights holders were unknown or cannot be found, making it impossible for anyone else to build a comparable digital library; the interests of some class members, including authors of orphan works and foreign authors, might not have been adequately represented; and the efforts to notify class members about the settlement might have been inadequate.

But unlike some of the more strident opponents, who have argued that the settlement is so flawed that it must be rejected, the Justice Department said it hoped the accord could be fixed so that its benefits — most notable the unprecedented access to millions of out-of-print books it would offer — could be achieved. And it said the parties appeared willing to make changes to address such concerns.

Laying out a path forward, the department said some of its antitrust concerns could be mitigated by “some mechanism by which Google’s competitors’ could gain comparable access to orphan works.” And it said that concerns about the fair representation of some authors could be addressed if some rights for Google to profit from out-of-print books were granted only if their authors agreed, rather than by default.

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The Beijing Book Fair?

A censorship scandal has already erupted around October’s Frankfurt Book Fair, whose guest of honour this year is China. This coming Saturday, in the lead up to the fair, Frankfurt will be hosting a symposium on “China and the World”, (pdf) together with the Chinese. One of the speakers, an influential investigative journalist and environmental activist, Dai Qing, has now come under pressure from the Chinese delegation not to give her talk, as Bernhard Bartsch reported yesterday in the Frankfurter Rundschau: “The written invitation issued by the Frankfurt Book Fair, which Dai needed to apply for her visa, vanished into thin air at the behest of the Peking authorities for Press and Publication (GAPP), which is now threatening to pull out of conference entirely if the disagreeable author is allowed to enter the country.”

In the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Henrik Bork reported: “The Chinese have ‘stated unequivocally that if Ms Dai Qing does turn up after all, they will pull out all together,’ according to Peter Ripken, the symposium’s organiser. This has created a ‘catch-22 situation‘, because it would mean that the entire 10-person delegation from Beijing boycotts the symposium.”

It was announced today that Dai Qing has received an express visa from the German embassy and is intent on coming to Frankfurt this weekend, Henrik Bork reports. And the Book Fair? It is making “worried noises about Dai’s insistence on coming to Frankfurt. ‘It could bring the whole event to its knees,’ says Peter Ripken. ‘We want a real debate, but without the Chinese attendees the conference would become a tribunal.’ Last Wednesday he was still under the assumption that Dai would agreed not to come to Frankfurt until October when she would talk at an event that was not connected to the official Chinese programme at the Book Fair.” Hang Hui, professor of Humanities at Tsinghua University and a pioneer of the government-critical “new left” in China who was to give a key note speech at the symposium, will also not be attending. He told the FR that “his visa application had been rejected by the German embassy on formal grounds”.

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Tomorrow’s E-Utopia?

E-books and graphic novels (which, at least at this point in time seem perfectly incompatible) are two of the fastest growing segments of a pretty slumpy book market. Beyond this rapid growth—and of course it’s rapid, it’s gone from zero to something in a mere year-and-a-half—there’s something about e-books that captures the imagination and out-strips any of the advantages or flaws found in the Kindle or Sony eReader or iPhone. In every other medium, digital has proven to be the future, and as books move in this direction, everyone is collectively freaking out.

And I mean that in the most polarizing of ways. E-books and the future of reading tends to be a very divisive topic, with bibliophiles lamenting the loss of that book smell, with geeks panting over the possibility of an iBook reader, with bookstores watching their ever shrinking margins continue to erode, with publishers and the Authors Guild locking into an outdated DRM-model and fretting over the quickly-becoming-standard $9.99 retail price, and with authors nervously trolling Scribd to see if anyone is illegally stealing their work. (Although it may be worse if no one is thieving your work—we all want to write something worthy of piracy, no?)

As you’ll see below, I’m internally divided as to whether or not the e-book revolution will good for book culture or not. (The first time I saw an ad for Kindle accessories in the NYC subway, I had visions of the apocalypse. And yes, I am one of those weirdos who’s annoyed by the fact that I can’t see what book people are reading on their Kindles. I love having the opportunity to make snap judgments about people based on what they read in public. And, to be honest, my dream is to see someone reading an Open Letter book on the subway—a dream that will go unfulfilled if the Kindle takes over the world.) But there are at least a couple of distinct advantages offered by e-books that are worth looking at—especially in relation to distribution.

Before getting into all this though, I do want to state upfront that I’m going to indulge in a bit of science fiction in this speech and imagine a more ideal e-book market with different e-readers than exist today. ()