Pre-Women’s Prize Shortlist Meeting Thoughts

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The Women’s Prize shadow panel is meeting on Saturday to choose our shortlist. I am not, strictly speaking, ready. There are three books on the longlist that I have yet to read, or even manage to source: The Idiot by Elif Batuman; Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan; and A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert. The amount of guilt I feel about this is both profound and defensive: I feel awful for not completing, but I would also like to point out that I have not had a single free weekend since the 17th of March, and of those four weekends, three of them have required me to be out of London overnight. (The other one was the weekend in which I moved house.) So, sure, I could have done better with Women’s Prize reading, but part of not being completely mentally ill, for me, involves acknowledging when things are out of my control, and this past month has been completely and utterly out of my control.

Luckily, I already have an ideal shortlist in my own head, and I doubt that any of the three titles above would change that much.

If it were up to me, the shortlist would run like this:

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The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, by Imogen Hermes Gowar. Not only is it spectacularly well-researched historical fiction; it also captures the spirit of eighteenth-century London, the dirt and the laughter and the skull beneath the skin.

 

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Sight, by Jessie Greengrass. Although it didn’t speak to me personally as strongly as I had hoped, it’s a very skillful piece of writing on very topical issues: motherhood, autonomy, bodies. I think it’s probably a strong contender for ultimate winner, actually.

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Elmet, by Fiona Mozley. The writing is powerful and muscular and sure of itself, and Mozley integrates the anger of Generation Rent with the anger of those pushed off the land from time immemorial. It’s not a long book, but make no mistake, it’s a heavyweight.

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Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie. A spectacular, furious book about what it feels like to be pigeonholed, marginalised, and permanently suspected by your own country. It’s dramatic and relevant and although Shamsie’s writing doesn’t always do it for me, her vision and execution are consistent enough for this to deserve a place.

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The Trick to Time, by Kit de Waal. It’s on the second tier of this hoped-for shortlist – I don’t think it has the emotional punch or sophistication of Elmet or Sing, Unburied – but de Waal has a way of writing about people’s weaknesses that is unbearably moving, never sappy or saccharine.

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Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward. This is a very interesting paperback cover choice. It’s much more commercial; one of my colleagues initially thought it was YA. That might be smart on Bloomsbury’s part, because my money and my heart are both with Ward to win, and if she does, the general reader might want a cover that doesn’t hint too heavily at the elements of this book that are dark and knotty and Faulkner-esque (not so much in the style as in the themes).


As for who will ultimately win, there are really only two choices that will be completely satisfying: Elmet or Sing, Unburied, Sing. At a push, I would accept Sight‘s victory with equanimity. The others on the longlist are – most of them – good, but Mozley and Ward are in a league of their own: in terms of their skill with words and structure, in terms of their ability to develop characters into real-feeling people, and in terms of their level of intellectual engagement with the questions and problems their own books ask.

There are fewer books that I would actually kick and scream about seeing on the shortlist or winning, but Three Things About ElsieMiss Burma and Eleanor Oliphant would all, I’m afraid, be travesties. Elsie is heavy-handed with its moral; Miss Burma should not have been written as fiction in the first place, or else should have been written with greater dedication to fictionalising; and Eleanor Oliphant, while undeniably fun, relies heavily on some lazy generalisations about the behaviour of traumatised and autistic people (which it unfortunately tends to conflate). None of them ought to make the shortlist. I’d also be annoyed if The Ministry of Utmost Happiness made it, but that’s less because it’s substantially bad and more because it’s just a perfectly average book that happens to have been written by Arundhati Roy, and that’s not a good enough reason to shortlist anything.

Am I missing out on Batuman, Egan or Seiffert? Am I completely wrong about Mozley, or de Waal, or Greengrass, or Honeyman? (Obviously not, but feel free to try and convince me otherwise.)

A full report from the shadow panel will be forthcoming after the weekend.

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The Bookish Naughty List Tag

Not that I believe in bookish “sins”, really, but a good tag is hard to find. This one was originally created by A Page of Jenniely, and I’ve borrowed it from Cleo.

1. Received an ARC and not reviewed it?

All the time. This has become more of a thing since starting to work in a bookshop: previously, proofs sent to me for review on the blog were my only source of free advance copies. They now come from the shop as well. Consequently, the books that are actually sent to my house by publishers constitute only a fraction of the proofs that come my way, and many of them aren’t ones I would choose to read or review, so I often don’t.

2. Have less than 60% feedback rating on NetGalley?

Ahaha. Yes, probably. I keep forgetting that NetGalley demands reviews from you, and then having to hastily copy/paste whatever I put on Goodreads or the blog.

3. Rated a book on Goodreads and promised a full review was to come on your blog (and never did)?

I do this pretty regularly, or at least I did before instating the Reading Diary format on the blog; that keeps me a little more honest.

4. Folded down the page of a book?

Yeah, obviously. I use bookmarks as much as I can, but if there are multiple pages or passages I want to flag, folding down the page is a lot easier than hunting down some mini Post-its.

5. Skim read a book?

Very, very rarely. For the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel, I skimmed Outlandish Knight, because it was six hundred pages long and there was a time crunch. I used a technique that my colleague Zoe, who studied history, told me about: read the first and last two pages of every chapter, going into more depth only if you’re really interested.

6. DNF a book this year?

This probably depends on how you qualify a DNF. I read the first two or three pages of The Optickal Illusion yesterday and decided not to commit to reading it; does that count?

7. Bought a book purely because it was pretty with no intention of reading it?

I’m skint. I can’t afford to buy books just because I think they’re pwetty.

8. Read whilst you were meant to be doing something else?

I think you mean “read whilst actually doing something else”. I have stirred a sauce, cleaned a shower, shopped for groceries, walked to work, watched TV, and sat in the back of my tenth-grade chemistry class whilst reading. I’ve not yet managed to combine reading with sex, but it’s probably only a matter of time.

9. Accidentally spilled on a book

No, but I spill things on myself all the time as a result of book-related multi-tasking. Dropping things is a close second: I often overestimate my ability to simultaneously hold a laptop, an open paperback, my phone, and a glass of water.

10. Completely missed your Goodreads goal?

No, but this is probably because I a) set my Goodreads goals realistically, and b) read like the wind until the point in the year when I know I’m going to make it.

11. Borrowed a book and not returned it?

Very few people lend me books, so the issue rarely arises. I did steal a not-insignificant number of books from various primary school classrooms, though.

12. Broke a book buying ban?

Can’t break a ban you never instated.

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13. Started a review, left it for ages then forgot what the book was about?

This used to happen all the time when my primary blogging strategy was to do full-length reviews. It’s one of the reasons I started doing monthly Superlative roundups, and has influenced the development of the Reading Diary format.

14. Wrote in a book you were reading?

Yeah. Good luck doing an English degree if you don’t annotate your texts.

15. Finished a book and not added it to your Goodreads?

The documentary impulse is strong in me: I get very antsy if I finish a book and can’t add it to Goodreads before midnight that night (so that my Reading Challenge stats stay accurate, obvs).

 

Feel free to join in, if you want absolution from your bookish sins…

In 2017

I never used to believe in New Year’s resolutions. I never used to believe in the New Year starting in January, either; for me it has usually started with a new academic year, in the autumn, and all of that post-Christmas guilt stuff was just an excuse for self-flagellation and meanness. This year I’ve kind of changed my mind. There are some things I want to do in 2018, including taking up yoga again, finishing a first draft of this goddamn novel, and eating more mindfully. But resolutions, like dreams, are rarely interesting to anyone else, and, like dreams, rarely appear fully-formed.

My most long-standing New Year’s tradition is to look back over what I’ve done during the past twelve months. Usually the good outweighs the bad. This year was a decidedly mixed bag. Miserable shit happened. There was also much rejoicing. A lot of 2017 was about surviving and persisting and taking control of my own thoughts. I did that, and I’m proud of that.

In 2017, in roughly chronological order, I:

landed my dream job

bought some spectacular gold shoes for £3

showed my mama around the London I know

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learned to love Bach

served on the Baileys Prize shadow panel

had my heart broken

moved house

survived a sexual assault, in the same week that I moved house

…and now disclosed it to more people than ever

used my dining rights at my old college with friends

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explored my new neighbourhood

found some great free museum cafes to write in

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turned 25

visited home for the first time in almost two years

went vintage shop-hopping with my badass brother

witnessed a solar eclipse

was reunited (and got absolutely shirt-waisted) with my Govies: Matt, Jon, and Red

took a Greyhound bus

watched the sun rise over London from the roof of my new house

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welcomed dear friends to my new home

bought my first ever house plant

celebrated my goddaughter’s first birthday

consulted on hair, makeup, dresses and shoes for my cousin Sarah’s wedding next April

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sang at Liverpool Cathedral (during the aftermath of Storm Brian!)

bought the most majestic floor-length velvet dress the world has ever seen

served on the Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel

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rejoiced in the marriage of two wonderful humans, Helen and Charlie

made it to 120K words of my novel

led the music on Christmas Day at my grandparents’ parish church

earned the trust of my auntie’s traumatised rescue puppy

traveled to Scotland to celebrate the New Year with my godparents

read 181 (and a half) books

 

Of men and land

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Once I wrote a poem, and called it “to all the men I’ve slept with”. It wasn’t the sort of poem you might think. It was about leaving the city and going North, as far North as you can go in this country, to stand on a green cliff and look at the sea. I wanted, when I wrote it, to be able to walk with someone, quietly. “Shiver/in your sleep,” I wrote, “and we’ll wake each other warm./Up there the sky throws salt to tell a fortune/you can’t read.” It did not seem necessary to imagine conversation, or interpretation; we would see what was in front of us, we would see the land and know it, and that would be enough.

I have always wanted to show the men I loved a piece of land. I have taken them to the top of the South Downs and made them see the green turf and the white chalk and the trees in the valleys, demanded that they love it and understand it as fiercely and fully as they loved me. I have wanted to take them to the place I grew up, where the grass reaches to your waist in the summer and the sky bakes white, but the mountains loom blue. One of them, at least, wanted the same, and I obliged him by loving the naked hills and cold streams of Cumbria with all my heart. For some of us, it is land that makes and ties us—even those of us who belong not to one place but to many—and I wonder sometimes how a person might turn out differently if they were born to more or less dramatic landscapes: to mountains or plains, plains or deserts.

Owning the land is not important. A title deed makes no difference one way or the other. It is not a legal right that I claim, but a spiritual one. My heart owns a place in front of a spinney on top of a hill in Sussex; it owns a field spanned by curving mown paths and dotted with tangles of blackberry vines; it owns one particular fell, at one particular violent sunset. I have no more of a right to these places than anyone else, but I certainly have no less.

And why is it that places to which I truly have no right, places I have only ever entered as a guest, seem to have a claim on me? That, for instance, a freezing chateau west and south of Paris, where I sat on a green sofa and wrote part of my book by candlelight with numb fingers; where I went so hungry that it felt like sickness, until a late supper—steak and pasta, nothing fancy, but still perhaps the most welcome meal I have ever eaten; where I drank French whisky and talked about concert pianists with the friend who owned the place; that it should feel as terrible a loss, now that I can never go there again, as the loss of a person does? Why should the smell of cigarettes and the taste of weak tea and cold February morning sunlight make me think of this place with what I can only call homesickness? How can merely having been happy—even as happy as I was there—have such a long half-life?

It goes the other way, too, of course. Places have been poisoned for years. There are buildings, streets—there are whole towns—which have been so out of bounds to me that even seeing the names of the places written down, or hearing them in passing on the news, was sharply painful, so that I would have to stop, or sit, or turn away. To lose a place has always seemed a peculiarly terrible punishment. It is not only the past that is taken from you, then, but the future too; you must shape your steps in other ways, take different roads home or avoid a certain intersection at a certain time of day, and you feel you will never walk whole and carelessly again.

A few years ago, a man showed me a place. I didn’t know what to expect; we knew each other well enough, as these things go, but I could not guess what he might want me to see. We drove for an hour or so, quiet almost all the way, because I was afraid to say something that might sound stupid. And then we crested a hill, and this valley opened out—all steep sides and soft grass, with sheep grazing in it, and a little river running through it, and some half-hidden stone houses—and I have never felt so much as though someone were tossing me a gift. How can I explain it? I had probably said, in passing, that I liked this sort of thing: open hillsides, swift water, that feeling of being both outdoors and within a space as structured, in its own way, as a great cathedral. But to be taken to such a place, almost without explanation, by someone who also loved it… It was as though a friend, pawing through clothes to take to charity, had found a ballgown and handed it to me.

There is something of sex and something of death in this obsession, I’m well aware. The giving of precious things doesn’t have to happen in bed—or at least not always—and the bestowing of a beloved prospect is an act of trust, as much as taking off your clothes is. The love of a place is intensely bound up with a sense both of freedom and of safety. Love itself is the mixing of those things: a beloved person is one with whom I feel both free and safe. And where I feel free and safe, I feel I could die with perfect happiness. In every place I’ve loved, at some point I have had the same compulsion—whether I act on it or not—to lie down on the ground, to try to melt and mingle into the earth. To consummate, or be consumed. Sex and death. Would it be so bad? Like Wordsworth’s Lucy: “roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course,/With rocks, and stones, and trees.”

I am still a young woman, still seeking a future. Maybe, every time, it is simply a way of posing a question, an idle curiosity that is also—as all questions are—a test. Will you come away?

Man Booker Prize 2017 Longlist Feelings

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The filter on this photo is oddly pale.

 

Initial thoughts:

Very little of this is surprising, and very few of these authors are new. I think the only debuts are Emily Fridlund, Fiona Mozley, and (technically) George Saunders, since it’s his first novel, although I’m inclined to say that doesn’t exactly make him a debut author. On the one hand, this pleases me – I’ve been bitching for years about how publishers fetishize novelty, and about how dangerous it is to cease supporting novelists once they’ve written their Big First Book or are no longer as photogenic as the next young thing. On the other hand, this makes for a list that, despite Baroness Young’s proclamations of its diversity, doesn’t look particularly diverse to me. There are a lot of big, established names – Zadie Smith, Ali Smith, Colson Whitehead, Paul Auster, Sebastian Barry – and only a handful of authors that you might imagine the general public not recognising.

Thematically, there seems to be a strong focus on social issues: slavery and its repercussions, political repression, neo-liberalism, celebrity charity, the refugee crisis. Personal relationships are also at the heart of many of these books: Barry’s soldier-lovers in Days Without End, McGregor’s traumatised villagers in Reservoir 13, an old man and a young woman in Ali Smith’s Autumn, Zadie Smith’s rivalrous dancers. In terms of formal experimentation, the field seems decidedly conservative, with Saunders, Auster and McGregor the most obviously innovative. (Mozley might be interesting, too, but as no one seems to know much about it, it’s hard to say yet.)

What I’ve read:

Of the longlisted thirteen, I’ve read six: Days Without End, Reservoir 13, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Lincoln In the Bardo, Swing Time and The Underground Railroad. At least four are strong contenders to be among my books of the year, although I found The Ministry of Utmost Happiness more ambitious than successful, and liked Swing Time a lot without thinking it a work of genius.

What’s missing:

More big names, although in honesty this is probably the right decision; Salman Rushdie seems to me to have been curdling for some time now, and The Golden House looks depressingly like another of those let’s-mock-Trump novels that writers seem to think are appropriate stand-ins for actual social engagement. Hanif Kureishi’s The Nothing also deserves to have been left off; the first few pages read like an aggressive Roth parody, which is not a compliment. I’m slightly surprised by the exclusion of Edward Docx’s Let Go My Hand, which is a very skilful piece of writing in the way it balances a wide range of emotions; Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY, which if nothing else is balls-to-the-wall committed to its own zaniness; Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, which I actually wouldn’t have put on the longlist anyway but which does have legions of devoted fans and is a pretty good book; and House of Names by Colm Toibin. The Nix, Christodora, First Love, The Power, English Animals, and Spoils were also strong contenders that I wouldn’t have been surprised to see on the list.

What shouldn’t be there:

Harsh, I know. Maybe this is better phrased as “what surprises me by its presence”. As Baroness Young also pointed out, every book is the result of vast amounts of time and effort and dedication and sweat and tears. At the same time, if this is meant to be a list of thirteen of the year’s best books, I’m not sure why The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is on it. As a piece of fiction, it’s so unmoored, so unclear about which stories it wants us to care about, that I found its ultimate effect was to alienate me from any of them.

What I’d like to read:

Of those I haven’t read, Solar Bones, History of Wolves, Exit West and Autumn are immediately appealing. We’ve also been offered proofs of Elmet from the publisher, which I’m very excited about (the author is a bookseller at Little Apple in York! How great is that?) I might be more thrilled by the prospect of 4321 if it weren’t about seven thousand pages long and still only available in hardback. Mais non, my friends. On the basis of available time and wrist strength, non.


The full list:

4321 by Paul Auster

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (Faber & Faber) (scroll down for February Superlatives entry)

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor (my full review)

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (my full review)

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (scroll down for June Superlatives entry)

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Autumn by Ali Smith

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (scroll down for February Superlatives entry)

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (scroll down for January Superlatives entry)

Fireside Chats With a Bookseller, II

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image credit: Heywood Hill

“Can you get it today?”

There are a lot of reasons to find Amazon unappealing. I know that they have done some valuable work in the sense that they provide a much bigger platform for self-published authors, and even through a veil of retained snobbery, I can recognise that that’s a good thing for a lot of people. It’s pretty clear, though, that they also engage in deeply unsavoury business practices (the Hachette price wars); depressing – though evidently unsuccessful – attempts to break into bricks-and-mortar bookselling; and services like Mechanical Turk, which lets you hire humans to do jobs that computers can’t do, which sounds great until you actually try to sign up for it as a worker, at which point you realise that the tasks are generally painfully menial, you have no way to negotiate with prospective employers, and you’d have to do six hundred of these tasks per day in order to make anything like a decent wage.

They contribute, in other words, to the service economy that we now have, which convinces consumers that anything, any commodity that you can possibly imagine, should be available to you within two hours. Services like Quiqup, Deliveroo and Uber are entirely reliant on this. Amazon drone delivery is a service designed with this in mind. It fosters the idea that you should never have to wait for anything, ever, if you can afford not to.

These are companies that are built on hundreds of thousands of backs, mostly belonging to people who provide unskilled and low-paid labour. It is the only way this particular business model works; the only way that you can get a pizza, or a pair of shoes, physically delivered to you in under an hour is to have an army of people standing by, just waiting for you to order it.

Small, independent businesses do not work like that, and so it always baffles me when a customer – piqued that we cannot, in fact, special-order something for delivery in under an hour – chooses to vent their distress by informing us that they “only shop here to support small businesses and fight Amazon.” You cannot support a small business if you expect it to be doing what Amazon does. If you support a small business, you have to understand what you are sacrificing, and what you will receive in return. As a consumer, you sacrifice a lot of your power: you can only walk out of a small business with whatever is on the shelf at the time; if you order something, you will need to wait – probably no more than 24 hours, because deliveries happen once a day, but waiting is an anomaly for consumers now.

But what you get in return is something magical: people who love what they’re doing. People who will spend half an hour with you, if you are friendly and interested, picking out books that they think you would like. People who will talk to a regular customer about her dog, her kids, her holidays, what she’d like to read next. (Although this deserves a caveat: we’re at work, and just like you in your office, we don’t always have all the time in the world for a catch-up, particularly if you’re regular, but not always a regular customer, if you see what I mean. More on this in another post.) People who know what’s over-hyped and what’s underrated; people who can size you up the second you walk in the door; people who, on their best days, can pluck exactly what you need from a shelf you didn’t even notice. If you have a good independent bookshop nearby, that’s what you’ve got: a building full of witches, of knowledge and instinct and experience. That’s the edge we have over Amazon: you should buy books here not because it’ll make you feel better about your lifestyle, like a smug purchaser of farmer’s market aubergines, but because the results in the long-term are generally better. We can introduce you to authors and books that an algorithm might never have shown you; that sort of thing can change a person’s life.

If you’re not willing to give up immediacy, that’s okay! Some people don’t need or want a high level of personal attention; they want what they know they like, right away, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s exactly what Amazon is good for. But if you do earnestly want to support local independent businesses, understand what that means.

(Endnote: I should tell you that there has been one occasion, as far as I know, in the history of the shop, where we exerted ourselves on someone’s behalf to get them a surprising quantity of the same title in the same day. The only way it was possible to do this was to literally walk to Waterstone’s and buy twelve of their copies, walk them back to our shop, and charge the customer. The customer was entirely content with this arrangement. As you’ll have gathered, this was a pretty unusual interaction.)

The Idealist, by Justin Peters

Knowledge is power. Therefore, free, unimpeded access to information is an inherently political issue.

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Unless you keep pretty up to date with the tech community and the news that surrounds its activities, you may not know who Aaron Swartz was. On the other hand, if you were paying attention to US news in the early months of 2013, it’s possible that you do. In January of that year, Swartz was found dead in his apartment; he had apparently hanged himself. He had helped to establish the Creative Commons, and was one of the three founders of Reddit, amongst many other projects. At the time of his death, he had been indicted by the FBI under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and was facing up to ninety-five years in prison. His alleged crime involved downloading millions of articles from JSTOR, a database for academic papers. The FBI was convinced that he had intended to distribute them widely, and saw this as an infringement not only of JSTOR’s terms of service, but of US intellectual property law. Swartz, and the people he had spent most of his twenty-six years talking to and working with, believed that his action was a necessary step towards creating open access libraries, so that everyone—not just the people who could afford incredibly pricy journal subscriptions—could benefit from the work of publicly funded academics; that there was, in Swartz’s own words, “no justice in obeying unjust laws”, and that American copyright laws were fundamentally unjust and geared towards protecting corporations instead of empowering citizens. In The Idealist, Justin Peters sets out to explain not only why Swartz’s death was an unnecessary tragedy caused in large part by the state’s determination to hound him, but also the history and the rationale of the ideas he was fighting for in the first place.

It is outrageously informative on that history. Peters starts with the first legal battle over copyright in the United States: that of Noah Webster to protect his spelling textbook of 1783, A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, from piracy. Webster wrote this textbook out of a sense of national pride, a desire to eradicate class divisions by giving poorer colonials a set of linguistic standards which would make them sound less like illiterate rustics. By doing this, Webster laid the foundation for arguments both for and against copyright provision for the next two hundred-odd years: the speed and ease with which information can be disseminated and/or acquired was subsequently framed in terms of public benefit. The question, in other words, has almost always been: Is it more or less advantageous to the general public to expand the public domain? Will it cause American creativity to flourish, or decline? Will access to literature and culture inspire people, or make them complacent? And—tacit but omnipresent in these discussions—how do you ensure that the rights of the creator are not simply a proxy for the rights of the corporation that distributes their work?

Amazingly, it has frequently been argued that it is in fact disadvantageous to the public to expand the public domain. Those of us who work, or want to work, as creatives can kind of see the point when it’s expressed the way it was in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:

“Every time a Napster enthusiast downloads a song, it takes money from the pockets of all these members of the creative community,” Ulrich said, remarking that the “touted new paradigm that the Internet gurus tell us we must adopt sounds to me like good old-fashioned trafficking in stolen goods.”

(That’s Larry Ulrich, the drummer from Metallica.)

As we all know, this attitude served the music industry extremely poorly. One of the great virtues of Justin Peters’s writing is that he assumes his readers are bright but not experts—possibly not surprising given his background as a journalist for Slate—and I found him a particularly effective guide when he was explaining things like why the music industry failed so badly:

…[The] mainstream culture industries operate on a mildly coercive ‘push marketing’ model in which companies use advertising and promotions to create consumer demand for the products they want to sell, and the formats in which they want to sell them. Online file sharing repudiates ‘push marketing’ by allowing consumers to unilaterally decide what they want to consume and how they want to do so. As file sharing grew ever more popular in the early 2000s, bringing with it potential opportunities for new, collaborative models of marketing and production, the culture industries instead focused almost wholly on ways to regain their lost control.

This piece of explanation is equally useful when applied to the large academic and journal publishers whom Swartz was targeting when he started crawling JSTOR. I used to work for one—Taylor and Francis, which has recently acquired Elsevier, the main target of Swartz’s, and Peters’s, frustration—and it is a little alarming to realise just how blithely I accepted the idea that subscriptions to these services ought to be paid for. Consider this:

Tens of thousands of scholarly journals exist, and since the 1970s their subscription prices have risen at a rate higher than the rate of inflation […] but academic libraries are, more or less, compelled to subscribe. Every professor expects to find his specialization’s academic journal on the library’s shelves. Thus, many academic libraries wind up spending the bulk of their yearly acquisitions budgets on journal subscriptions.

That’s assuming that a library has a meaningful acquisitions budget at all. Many of them do not—or, at least, don’t have much of one. This plight is especially common in underdeveloped countries, where librarians have enough trouble keeping their computers on […] The result is an ever-widening gap between rich institutions and poor ones.

(A footnote to this section gives an example: as of two years ago, a print subscription to the journal Applied Surface Science cost institutions $12,471 per year.)

Online content distribution was meant to be a partial solution to this. JSTOR, however—the biggest online database of this kind of academic material in the world—struck a deal with publishers when it was first founded, promising that they wouldn’t lose out on potential profits by allowing JSTOR to collect their journals content. The result is that libraries still have to pay annual subscription fees, which are still prohibitively high, and access has not appreciably widened in any way. Meanwhile, the work of academics becomes commoditised—which really is not the point of academia, where you work on arcane and often expensive projects subsidised by benevolent instutitions and sometimes governments with the tacit understanding that whatever you find out will be freely shared for mankind’s general benefit—and, moreover, that commoditisation works only to enrich their publishers, not the academics themselves. It’s a system that screws almost everyone.

Peters’s book works so well because he spends a lot of time getting the reader up to speed on the debates behind these issues. It is not, however, solely a history; it is also a biography of Aaron Swartz, who conformed in many ways to the stereotypical image we might have of a hacker or a nerd. Though he was a brilliant, articulate thinker, and a talented programmer—he was contributing extensively to mailing lists by the time he hit eighth grade, and was a major player in the launch of the Creative Commons at the age of fifteen—he was also profoundly disdainful of authority. He refused to attend high school past tenth grade, and instead took classes at a local college. He had terrible body image and self-esteem issues, which manifested in eating rituals and a series of “cleansing” diets which terrified his friends. Photographs suggest a sweet, slightly diffident young man, but he was also known for getting straight to the heart of a problem, without anything like tact or diplomacy. He was desperately afraid of being seen as dependent or emotional. Asking for help, of any kind, from anyone, was his worst nightmare. He suffered from chronic depression. And, perhaps most damningly, his convictions led him to make statements about the duty of the hacker-citizen to liberate information. Much of Swartz’s clash with the FBI was exacerbated by this sort of personality baggage; he looked like what the government thought of as a bad guy.

“Looks like he is a big hacker, i googled him,” was one MIT police officer’s response upon Swartz’s arrest. Not Reddit cofounder; not Open Library architect; not computer prodigy or applied sociologist or Harvard affiliate or any of the other lines on his résumé. A big hacker.

And, before the FBI, Swartz’s brilliance and his privilege—he grew up in Highland Park, a wealthy suburb of Chicago; he was exposed to computers from a very young age, having a father in the industry (Robert Swartz eventually worked as a consultant for MIT); he had the wealth and the support to enable him to drop out of schools, universities and workplaces when he found them too restrictive—caused problems too. There’s a reason the book’s title is The Idealist, and reasons why idealism is often, definitively, impractical. If you’re reading this as someone who tries to make a living by writing, you’ll probably already have thought of some good reasons for reasonably strong copyright laws. Another perspective comes from a librarian at UNC Chapel Hill with the splendidly mediaeval name of Bess Sadler, who approved of Swartz’s aims but, like most of the rest of us, had to live in the real world:

“I thought he was ethically right, but I was unwilling to put my own livelihood on the line with such strong statements [as Swartz’s Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto]… A librarian who issued a manifesto like that would be unemployable, and that’s something that should give us all pause.”

Which is not to say that it’s not a good idea, or that we shouldn’t strive for a world where creators and their work are sufficiently valued that they can easily afford to be generous, as people who contribute to free and open-source software very frequently are. (This isn’t to say that all F/OSS contributors are wildly wealthy. Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg, was a mercurial megalomaniac who spent most of the ’80s living on a mattress in Urbana, Illinois, living off the rent paid to him by various lodgers. Modern house price absurdity—amongst other things—has made this strategy difficult for most young creators, though. It’s much more tempting to make your money in start-ups or industry first, and be ethical when you can afford to be.)

I could go on, and I probably will in bits and pieces, because this book is probably the single most important one I’ll read all year in terms of informing and challenging my ideas about power, information, and how technology should be used. It’s currently in vogue to encourage doom-mongering about the Internet: mainstream media reports often imply that it’s causing impotence, or school shootings, or apathy, or obesity, or bigotry, or festering hatred. It does these things, sometimes (hello, Breitbart! Hey there, 4chan! And Gamergate, and Twitter Support; I see you too!) But you don’t have to believe that, ultimately, that’s all the Internet is good for. It was first designed and used by people who wanted to build an infinite library. And that, bookish chums, is an ideal worth hanging on to.

Many, many thanks to Thogdin Ripley (another excellent name) at Duckworth Overlook for the review copy. The Idealist was published in the UK on 23 March.