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.

Journeyman + The Violet Hour

April was so efficient a reading month that May was bound to be a bit slower by comparison; literally almost anything would have been. I’ve read nothing but review copies this month so far, and have still only finished four books in twelve days (and written reviews of two of them). So as not to fall behind, I’m putting my reviews for both Journeyman and The Violet Hour into the same post. They’re not desperately similar books, but, like many literary pairings, the more you think about them in conjunction with one another, the more they seem like two different ways of dealing with the same thing.

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Journeyman, by Marc Bojanowski (Granta)

After Daredevils, Bojanowski’s protagonist Nolan reminded me a bit of Jason, in the way that he’s an essentially good man who is often (though, crucially, not always) defined by his passivity. This isn’t Bojanowski’s first novel, but it’s the first of his that I’ve read, and it strikes me that he’s very much a writer of themes. That isn’t to say he doesn’t do them well—the integration of plot points into the service of theme is generally elegant and often slyly surprising—but you can bet your boots that when something does happen in this book, it will be resonant in more ways than one.

It starts as it means to go on. The title is a reference to Nolan’s occupation: he’s a journeyman carpenter. But it’s also, very pointedly, a reference to his identity: he’s a journey-man, one who is always moving, always packing up and heading on. “What’s that saying?” his brother Chance sneers. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Nolan’s MO for life, it seems, is to get the hell out of Dodge whenever it starts to look too much like reality—commitment, mortality, what-have-you—is closing in. When he visits Chance in California, it’s meant to be a courtesy call, but he loses his truck and Airstream trailer in an accident and finds himself stranded there, unwillingly putting down what you might start to call roots.

Western literature’s original journey-man is Odysseus (technically I guess it’s probably Gilgamesh, but POETIC LICENSE), whose character becomes defined by war to the extent that he can’t bring himself to just go back home. He has to keep having adventures, keep escaping death, keep being larger than life. Nolan’s relationship to war is much more ambivalent, but equally haunted. The book is set in 2007 or 2008, a time when the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were real and present to almost every American, and especially to young men of fighting age. Nolan has not enlisted, and neither has Chance. Meanwhile, their father—a shadowy but hugely influential figure in their lives—was a veteran of Vietnam, about which he never spoke. At one point Nolan mentions the way in which participating in war demarcated adulthood for the men of previous generations; now, even those who’ve seen combat are not so much purified and matured by the experience as they are deeply, deeply fucked up. Additionally, since that participation is optional, it’s not clear what can come to take its place. Both brothers are dogged by a feeling of having failed in some way obscure but profound. Chance is an obsessive, writing a thousand-page novel about a Russo-Japanese naval battle and pursuing a serial arsonist in the little town of Burnridge. (Burn-ridge, get it?) Nolan works in construction, represses most of his feelings of guilt and lost-ness, and runs like hell from anything that might tether him.

We’re meant to fear the repressed man—we’re taught that his bottled-up emotions will one day explode, most likely in violence, and probably all over us—but in Journeyman, it’s not Nolan’s repression that’s frightening; it’s Chance’s behaviour. Unstoppably loquacious, clearly unhinged, he babbles about conspiracy theories and death and meaning and consequences; he assaults a man in a pizza parlor in the belief that he is defending civilisation; he is transported to rage by the next door neighbour’s teenaged daughter’s loud music, and pours bleach on their lawn. His mania is precisely the sort of thing that the tidy facade of suburban northern California is meant to hide. But instead of joyous anarchy, it suggests a man who’s come loose from the moorings of his community, even from sanity. Bojanowski’s ending, which is quietly redemptive but far from saccharine, reinforces that: the importance of committing to a place, to people. Of not keeping yourself isolated in the universe.

The Violet Hour, by Katie Roiphe (Virago)

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The other day, I was killing time in a Pret and this old woman came up to me and asked if she could sit at my table. There was another seat free and I wasn’t waiting for anyone, so of course I told her that she could. She sat for a moment, then asked what I was reading. Normally when people ask what you’re reading, they either don’t really care, or they’re mad. Choosing not to commit myself by speaking, lest she was either one, I held up the book so that she could see the front cover. “Great Writers at the End”, she read the subtitle aloud. “I knew a great writer once,” she said.

“Which one?” I asked. I still had one finger in the book, marking my place.

“You probably won’t know her,” she said slowly. She wasn’t that old, really, but she had the face of a smoker and her eyes were rheumy and the words came slowly out of her mouth in the way that I’ve heard words come from people who are on heavy medication.

“Try me,” I said.

She shrugged. “Doris Lessing?”

We talked for forty minutes. Her name was Hetty. Her father had been a South African journalist, had known Mandela. They came to this country when she was five. She seemed to have moved in rarefied circles. She told me she was bipolar. Some of the celebrities she said she’d met were probably lies—she couldn’t explain, for instance, how she knew Paul McCartney or Audrey Hepburn—but some of it was, I think, the truth. She’d nannied for Eric Idle’s children. She had written songs. She sang a fragment of one for me. Her voice was low and sweet, the kind of voice that the 1960s and ’70s liked.

This isn’t really, I know, a review of The Violet Hour, but in a tangential sort of way it is a nod to the sort of thinking that Roiphe’s book provokes. She writes about famous authors just before their deaths, and about how death pervaded their lives and their arts. Many of them were obsessed, fearful of it or romanticizing it or both. Dylan Thomas thought he was dying at thirty and returned to the idea constantly. Susan Sontag refused to discuss her cancer diagnosis; her personal mythology, her exceptionalism, had no room for mortality. John Updike tried to keep death at bay, all his life, with illicit sex: affairs were proof of life. Maurice Sendak was perhaps my favourite of all the featured writers (though to me he is more an artist): his long-undiscussed sexuality, his long-term partner Gene, his dogs, his adoptive son. He seems to have been mischievous, cantankerous and generous in equal measure.

I would have liked to see Roiphe focus more on the work of each writer: their lives and personalities are reasonably interesting, but more judicious close reading of passages would have been nearer to my heart. The work, after all, is what distinguishes them. But there is something extraordinary anyway in hearing about their childhood brushes with disease and disaster, their neediness or their fearlessness or their posturing in the middles of their lives as well as at the ends of them. “All deaths are the same,” Roiphe writes, and that’s what I won’t forget from her book. Hetty, who seemed to have tangoed with greatness, was now a woman with faded curly hair and a slightly trembling hand, drinking coffee across from me on Kentish Town Road and telling me stories. She was just a person, just a human, who would die. I was a young, hungry, sharp-elbowed woman, listening to her voraciously, and I was just a person, just a human, who would die. I’ve met two or three very famous people in my life, and every single one of them, when I looked them in the eye, was just a person. Just a human, who would die. Roiphe quotes George Bernard Shaw, who, as usual, is both pithy and correct: “Don’t try to live forever; you will not succeed.” Nothing wrong with that, this book says.

Thanks very much to Natalie Shaw at Granta, and Grace Vincent at Virago, for the review copies. Journeyman and The Violet Hour were published in the UK on 5 May.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten New-to-Me Authors Read in 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ’em out.

This week’s topic: the top ten authors whom I read for the first time in 2014. I read a lot of authors for the first time this year; it was a year of exploration and I loved nearly every minute of it.

1. Beryl Bainbridge. My first book of the year, Master Georgie, was also one of the best–rarely have I ever read something so emotionally charged, written with such subtlety and compression. Although I didn’t read any other Bainbridge novels this year, The Bottle Factory OutingAn Awfully Big Adventure and According to Queeney are definitely on my list.

2. Mary Doria Russell. The Sparrow is a disturbing, gorgeous book about faith and first contact with an alien civilization. Although it’s less tightly wound than Master Georgie, here Russell also deals with an emotionally charged plot and themes very subtly. It’s a masterclass for anyone who wants to write fiction.

3. Katherine Faw Morris. Young God was without a doubt one of the best books I read this year–possibly the very best. How could it be otherwise? It’s got a thirteen-year-old North Carolina hill-dwelling drug lord called Nikki for a protagonist. She’s motherless, violent and magnificent.

4. Sarah Waters. HOW HAD I NOT READ HER BEFORE. HOW. This is the writer who gave the world the metaphor of a woman who resides in her own skin with a smooth fullness that suggested she’d been poured into it like toffee into a mould. That is a first-class metaphor, you guys.

5. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Author of Americanah, about which I think I raved earlier. Also, gave an interview in which she said she was a feminist and seemed utterly bewildered by the idea that anyone with any sense of human rights might not be a feminist. What a pro.

6. Anne Carson. Anne Carson redrew the boundaries of poetry for me this year. Her collection Glass and God obsessed me in early October the way that life-changing writing does. I also wrote about it for Quadrapheme.

7. John le Carre. The master of British understatement and tragic post-imperial malaise. I read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy this year and started The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. No one writes espionage novels like this guy did.

8. Jane Smiley. For the devastating spin on King Lear in her novel A Thousand Acres; I haven’t read any of her other novels and apparently no two are the same, but she too understands how to hold strong emotions in tension with each other, without over-explaining. What an amazing book.

9. David Foster Wallace. I read his first novel, The Broom of the System, this spring. (He published it when he was my age. He wrote it as an undergrad, alongside his thesis on Wittgenstein. Bastard.) Broom is ridiculously funny and biting and makes no fucking sense at all. I can’t wait to get Infinite Jest out of storage.

10. Olivia Laing. All people who write and all people who are alcoholics/have ever known an alcoholic/have ever known someone who knew someone who was an alcoholic (by my calculations that covers everyone on the planet) could benefit from reading The Trip to Echo Spring. Her writing is sharp, economical but somehow lush, equally well adapted to describing the innermost workings of John Cheever’s short stories, the dipsomaniacal obsessions of Raymond Carver, or the thoughts and feelings in her own mind as a train takes her across America.