Digital Barbarism: A Writer's Manifesto

[Amazon Link]

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 it covers.
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 And it's not a book you can breeze through; Helprin's prose is dense, filled with literary allusions, historical references, and gratuitous snippets of non-English that (I'm pretty sure) smarter people than me will stumble over.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 2007, when 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 wasn't all:

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 the custom.
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 Tale was based upon Shakespeare's play The Winter's Tale; if Helprin advocated perpetual copyright, how does he have the nerve, the sheer gall 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 the bloggers…

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 arguments.

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 Thierer reprints his review of Digital Barbarism (which I find on-target), and also provides a feast of links for the interested.


Last Modified 2012-10-04 3:15 PM EDT