I'm a bit ashamed to admit this is the first book I've read by Mark
Helprin; his name haunts most of the "Books All Good Conservatives
Should Read" lists, including this recent one at
National Review. But—hey!—I'd heard of him,
and I'd noted some reviews of Digital Barbarism; so when I spied
it in the New Book stacks at the library of the University Near Here,
I grabbed it.
The tone is set immediately, in the book's preface, page
xi, sentence one:
Even were this book to begin in medias res, which, as an essay-memoir,
it does not, a reader might benefit from a brief guide to the terrain
In medias res
? Really? Helprin, to say the least, does not talk
down to his readers. And it's not a book you can breeze through;
Helprin's prose is dense, filled with literary allusions, historical
references, and gratuitous snippets of non-English
that (I'm pretty sure) smarter people than me will stumble over.
But (in a sense) the book really does begin in medias res. (Hey,
look it up; I did.) It's
at least round three in an ongoing debate between Helprin and
(generally) the enemies of intellectual property and (specifically)
Lawrence Lessig and the Creative Commons bunch. It was sparked back in
Helprin wrote an op-ed
for the New York Times, where he argued for an extension of
copyright terms beyond the current 70 years past the death of the
author. This unleashed a firestorm against Helprin.
Part of the problem
was the NYT's headline: "A Great Idea Lives Forever.
Shouldn’t Its Copyright?". Helprin notes that, as a
Constitutionalist, he agrees with the notion of a finite copyright
period; he just was advocating its extension beyond 70 years. But that
It would perhaps have been comforting that the Times's inaccurate
choice was the face that launched three-quarters of a million protests,
but it wasn't. Certainly, a large number of people read just the title
and then proceeded happily to vent their rage, but, in Lewis Carollian
twilight, even those "analysts" who purported to have read the text, and
those who actually did read it, read into it what was not there, and
based their arguments, rebuttals, and abuse on something that did not
exist, as if the didn't really need a text to set them off, which they
didn't, although they said they did, because that, anyway, used to be
This effect will not be unfamiliar to anyone who's written something
controversial in a place where it can be read, and commented upon, by
any idiot with a keyboard. And it was more than just plain misreading:
one thread of commenters seized upon the fact that Helprin's novel Winter's
was based upon Shakespeare's play The Winter's Tale
Helprin advocated perpetual copyright, how does he have the nerve, the
to leapfrog off another writer's work like that?
Only problem, as Helprin points out: despite the similarity in title,
his novel didn't have anything to do with the play. But that didn't stop
So I'm inclined to side with Helprin, but the book is not really the
defense of copyright, let alone intellectual property generally,
that the topic deserves. You can see part of the problem from the quoted
paragraph above. As accurate and well-written as it is, it's not much of
an argument to point out that a lot of your opponents make stupid
Helprin bills this book as an "essay-memoir". The memoir parts
are interesting, and (unsurprisingly) well-written. But they can
distract from the fact that the essay bits are unfocused and incomplete.
I can recommend the book as a good read (but not light reading).
Over at the Technology Liberation Front, Adam
his review of Digital Barbarism (which I find on-target),
and also provides a feast of links
for the interested.