Please note the date on this issue and don't put too much faith in the links, some of which are centuries old in Internet time.
At The Margin
Vol. 1, Issue 7
Wednesday March 1, 2000
Details, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.
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1. Why Copyright?
2. Underground in the Grammar Wars
3. Neo-Luddism and Literature
4. Do You Know Me?
5. Production Notes
6. Blue Underlined Words
1. Why Copyright?
One of the first fears expressed by beginning writers is, "How do I know an editor won't steal my ideas?" -- with its flip side, "How do I copyright my work?" The fear is understandable, but based on common misconceptions about copyright law. (It's also based on a misconception about editors -- that they've got time, let alone inclination, to peddle someone else's work as their own.)
The chief of these misconceptions is that copyright law is intended exclusively for the benefit of a work's creator. In fact, copyright law was always (at least in the United States) meant to ensure that ideas and their expression would flow freely -- benefiting not just the works' creators, but society at large. So copyrights and patents share a strange distinction of having been encoded in the U.S. Constitution. Although they seem like rather mundane principles, enforceable in mere administrative law courts, there they are in Clause 8 of Section 1 (not even relegated to an amendment), granting Congress the power to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."
A casual reading of this clause, especially by a paranoid writer or inventor, will focus on "the exclusive Right." Closer reading will recognize the importance of the ideas of advancing societal and cultural goals, and the phrase "for limited Times."
To understand the importance of these concepts, you just have to work backwards in history, two centuries prior to the time of the Constitution's framing. In 1557, the English crown had granted a monopoly to the Stationers' Company, giving them and their members the exclusive right to print nearly everything that might threaten the safety and security of the state. (Interestingly, poetry, drama, and popular literature were not included in this dangerous category, so those were the areas most ravaged by literary piracy.) Further, the Stationers' Company was granted authority to seek out and destroy any such unauthorized works. This then was the notion of a "copyright" which the U.S. Constitution overturned, granting to a work's creator the right to publish it -- again, for a limited time.
All my thinking on this subject has been triggered by a wonderful piece in the February issue of Open Spaces Quarterly, a finely-wrought literary magazine out of the Pacific Northwest. The article in question, by Associate Professor of Law Lydia Pallas Loren, is called "The Purpose of Copyright Law" and can be found at http://www.open-spaces.com/article-v2n1-loren.php. The piece is especially good on ways in which recent changes to copyright law have boosted the protection of private interests at the expense of the public good.
You may also be interested in reading more about the history of copyright and, in particular, of the Stationers' Company. A search on "Stationers' Company" at the excellent Google engine (at http://www.google.com) yields a host of useful references -- including, unsurprisingly, a quick overview in the Encylopaedia Brittanica on-line edition: http://search.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/8/0,5716,117358+25,00.html
2. Underground in the Grammar Wars
I went to college in the early 1970s at a small public institution in Southern New Jersey which at the time was called Glassboro State College. (It has since been renamed, more sonorously, "Rowan University" as a token of esteem for a wealthy benefactor.) Glassboro's principal claim to public attention was what had already become no more than a dim memory of a 1967 meeting, on campus grounds, between former US President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin. It seems unlikely, in retrospect, that anything of historic interest actually occurred at this meeting, held at the college president's home (named "Hollybush"), but it was still touted in official publications. You know the kind -- the ones going out to alumni, seeking further guilty atonement (preferably in large bills) for their misspent youth. "The Spirit of Hollybush," these publications trumpeted, was alive and well.
Anyway, there was a much more valuable asset at hand than this cheesy campus memory of a years-old headline, an asset officially unacknowledged. I'd heard about it, but had no first-hand exposure until I walked into Dr. Richard Mitchell's course in "Fantasy and Science Fiction."
The course itself was wonderful. It didn't focus on pop fantasy and SF, although there was some of that, but on such works as John Updike's The Centaur and James Stephens's The Crock of Gold. But vying with the books for first place in his students' attention was Dr. Mitchell himself.
He was something of a middle-aged eccentric, a wild-haired man in rumpled suits who rode a bicycle back and forth to campus in even the coldest weather, and rolled and smoked his own dark-brown, twisted stogies during his lectures. (If they ever make a movie of Dr. Mitchell's life, they need to get Christopher Lloyd for the title role.) He'd stride about at the front of the classroom, a man possessed by the literature of the fantastic.
We speculated on Dr. Mitchell's private life. He was married, we knew, and had children. His family, someone whispered, never took aspirin for headache relief, because Dr. Mitchell believed that simply masking a symptom did nothing to deal with the underlying problem, whatever it might be.
What we didn't know was that in the basement of his house would shortly be born one of the most impressive single-handed partisan campaigns in the late 20th century's many academic wars: The Underground Grammarian, a broadsheet set by hand using movable type and distributed through some mysterious process. It started on a small scale, attacking the prose of his colleagues and administrators at Glassboro; within a few years it would grow to cover the writings of politicians and statesmen. Dr. Mitchell himself would become one of Johnny Carson's favorite occasional guests on The Tonight Show. (I caught him there by accident, the first time; he waved a stogie in Carson's direction, goggle-eyed as ever, and asserted -- as Carson cracked up -- that college students "have no native tongue.")
To give you a sense of the UG's polemical style, here's an excerpt from its first issue:
About Subscriptions & Other Things
There are no subscriptions. We don't lack money, and we may attack you in the next issue. No one is safe.
We will print no letters to the editor. We will give no space to opposing points of view. They are wrong. The Underground Grammarian is at war and will give the enemy nothing but battle.
I was delighted to learn recently that a website exists whose sole reason for being is the preservation of Dr. Mitchell's writings, including not only the complete Underground Grammarian (1977 through 1991) but also information about his books, such as The Graves of Academe and The Leaning Tower of Babel. (Several of these books, recently reissued, contain material reprinted from the UG.) There's not a whole lot there about Dr. Mitchell himself -- although there are some photos -- but trust me, you won't go away empty-handed. The site is at http://members.aol.com/hu4wahz/ug/ (soon moving to http://www.sourcetext.com/).
About John Updike I need hardly say much to At The Margin's readers, of course; on the other hand, if you missed The Centaur when it came out, don't miss it for good. Whatever you do about Updike, though, you must also locate a copy of James Stephens's The Crock of Gold. (The book's opening words: "In the centre of the pine wood called Coilla Doraca there lived not long ago two Philosophers. They were wiser than anything else in the world except the Salmon who lies in the pool of Glyn Cagny into which the nuts of knowledge fall from the hazel bush on its bank. He, of course, is the most profound of living creatures, but the two Philosophers are next to him in wisdom...." That "of course" makes me grin every time I read it.)
3. Neo-luddism and Literature
Your humble guest editor makes a living by slinging electronic binary digits, both as a programmer and as a writer of books whose purpose, one might say, is to encourage the further slinging of such bits by others. It might surprise you then (as it indeed surprises me from time to time) to learn that I'm really not 100% enamored of the effects of technology -- in fact that I verge on neo-Luddism.
Part of this springs from sheer romanticism, sheer nostalgia: the memory, you know, of pudgy little-boy's fingers gripping a fat wooden pencil and practically gouging a lowercase "a" in a sheet of coarse, blue-lined paper. To write my first book in 1990-91, I sat at a card table for four to six hours a day -- pulling a sheet at a time from a stack of notebook paper, extracting from a box wooden #2 Ticonderoga pencils as needed -- and only afterwards transcribing the thing into a word processor. (Ironically, this was a book about the on-line world.)
But part of me wonders, too, whether a world growing (at least on the surface) daily more complex and daily richer, thanks to technology, is necessarily a world better than what came before. No, sure: I am not interested at all in reviving (say) the scourge of smallpox; and I'd rather have too much information on just about any subject than not enough. But I do wonder what this is all doing to our heads and our ways of interacting with one another. Is it, you know, better that we can now buy -- indeed, read -- books on-line than by the old-fashioned way of walking or driving to a bookseller or library and actually hefting the thing in our hands, turning its pages with our fingers, perhaps seeing the greasy thumbprints and marginal notes left by readers before us?
Not to put myself in his company in any other way, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gunter Grass wonders about this stuff, too. In a recent interview with Wired News, he claims in fact that he can tell whether a book was created directly on a computer or was first written out in longhand. You can find the interview at Wired News, http://wired.lycos.com/news/culture/0%2C1284%2C34152%2C00.html. For more information about Gunter Grass, check The New York Times's announcement of his 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature, at http://www.nytimes.com/library/books/093099grass-nobel.html, and the links from that page. Also visit About.com's page announcing the prize, at http://authors.about.com/arts/authors/library/weekly/aa101499.htm; it includes many more links
By the way, the term "neo-Luddism" (like the more familiar "Luddite") comes from the name of one Ned Ludd. Ludd was a weaver who, in 1812, led an ill-starred "revolt" of weavers against the depredations of the Industrial Revolution. You might be interested in learning more about him; try the Ballad of Ned Ludd, an on-line "techno-folk opera," at http://www.bigeastern.com/ludd/temp.htm. (From the title song: "...we don't know why/but Ned Ludd went awry,/he screamed and had a fit/and he crashed right into it [a power loom]./And it shuddered and it fell./and the weaver's liked it well.") Be sure to follow up the "Ludd's Links" for more information on neo-Luddism. Another interesting site is "Dr. Ludd (or why I learned to stop worrying and love the information superhighway)," at http://ccwf.cc.utexas.edu/~griffjon/stories/ludd.html.
Finally, even if you're violently pro-technology but remain curious about the history of wooden pencils, try http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/waac/wn/wn10/wn10-1/wn10-106.html.
4. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a novel, currently out of print in the U.S., by a famous writer. The name of the author and title of the book will be in the next issue, so write your guess down. If you want to send me your guess, email it to email@example.com.
Please include your name (so I can congratulate you in this space if you're correct) and let me know if you recognized the writer's style or if you know the book, or both.
This Issue's Sentence:
Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World.
I'm waiting for your guesses.
Last Issue's Sentence:
It was a wet Sunday afternoon in North Oxford at the beginning of October.
One reader ventured a guess: "I want to say Colin Dexter, but don't know if any Morse books are out of print."
That was a great guess, but wrong.
As this issue of At The Margin was being produced, we did get one belated entry, from Sheila Behr: "The sentence, 'It was a wet Sunday ... is by Barbara Pym. It is the first sentence of her novel, Crampton Hodnet."
Sheila is right!
[Your guest editor is roundly astonished, if only because he never understands how anyone at all can identify an out-of-print book by its first sentence.]
Here's the novel's entire first paragraph: "It was a wet Sunday afternoon in North Oxford at the beginning of October. The laurel bushes which bordered the path leading to Leamington Lodge, Banbury Road, were dripping with rain. A few sodden chrysanthemums, dahlias and zinnias drooped in the flower-beds on the lawn. The house had been built in the sixties of the last century, of yellowish brick, with a gabled roof and narrow Gothic windows set in frames of ornamental stonework. A long red and blue stained-glass window looked onto a landing halfway up the pitch-pine staircase, and there were panels of the same glass let into the front door, giving an ecclesiastical effect, so that, except for a glimpse of unlikely lace curtains, the house might have been a theological college. It seemed very quiet now at twenty past three, and upstairs in her big front bedroom Miss Maude Doggett was having her usual rest. There was still half an hour before her heavy step would be heard on the stairs and he loud, firm voice calling to her companion, Miss Morrow."
Although Barbara Pym began writing the novel in 1939, she put it aside to engage in war work, and when she was able to take it up again, it seemed too dated to her. It was finally published in 1985. It was one of her earliest completed novels. The publisher's note says in part: "Faithful readers of the novels will welcome the first incarnation of Miss Doggett and Jessie Morrow. It is interesting to see how in Jane and Prudence, she redraws them from a more ironic and subtle point of view. And it is not impossible that the young Barbara Bird of Crampton Hodnet might have grown into the brusque novelist of the later work." The note went on to say that everyone who had read the manuscript had laughed out loud "even in the Bodleian Library."
The writer to whom Pym is most commonly compared is Jane Austen -- not at all bad company for any writer.
Barbara Pym (the pen name of Mary Crampton) was born in Oswestry, Shropshire, on June 2, 1913, to Frederic Crampton Pym, solicitor, and Irena Spenser Thomas. She studied at Huyton College, in Liverpool, concentrating in English at the St. Hilda's College in Oxford (B.A. "with honors"). In the Second World War she worked for Censorship (like Mildred in her book Excellent Women), then in the Women's Royal Naval Service in Britain and in Naples. From 1946 to 1974, she was assistant editor of the anthropological journal Africa.
Her first published novel, Some Tame Gazelle, appeared in 1950 and was followed by five more books. In 1963 her publisher rejected An Unsuitable Attachment because, as the new chief editor said, "in present conditions we could not sell a sufficient number of copies to cover costs." In 1969 she offered The Sweet Dove Died, written a year earlier, to many publishers, with no success. She stopped writing.
In 1974, Pym retired from Africa, and quite possibly might have dropped from public attention altogether. But starting in 1977, new interest was kindled in her work. It began when the Times Literary Supplement asked some eminent literary figures to come up with a list of the "most underrated novelist of the century." Pym was the only one to be mentioned twice, by poet Philip Larkin and by Lord David Cecil. Almost overnight, Pym was suddenly considered a major novelist. Her new novel, Quartet in Autumn, was readily accepted, and shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year.
Pym died of cancer the January 11, 1980. Five of her books (including an "autobiography in diaries and letters") were published posthumously; many of her books finally appeared in print years after they'd been written.
For a complete chronological list of her work, see the Barbara Pym Official HomePage at http://www.spore.it/pym/home_english.htm.
(At The Margin readers close to Avenue Victor Hugo's home territory may be interested to know that the US chapter of the Barbara Pym Society is holding its 2000 conference in Cambridge, April 1-2. For details, see http://www.spore.it/pym/USA_apr2000.htm.)
5. Production Notes
This issue's guest editor is writer John E. Simpson, author of several indispensable technical books (including Just XML [Prentice Hall, 1999; 2nd edition upcoming Spring 2000]) and the novel Crossed Wires (Carroll and Graf, 1992), which may have been the first mystery ever to use email as a major plot device. John's website, where you can learn what B movies have to do with XML, is at http://www.flixml.org. Many thanks to John for freeing up Floyd Kemske to finish the rewrite of his new novel, Labor Day (look for it in September). John would like to point out to regular At The Margin readers that putting this thing together is nowhere near as simple as Floyd makes it look.
6. Blue Underlined Words
I follow a lot of links in the course of compiling this letter, and some of the pages I visit look like they may be interesting or useful to you. I have only visited them and know nothing about them beyond what I could gather from the visit. So I'm not endorsing anything, just bringing it to your attention. Click at your own risk.
Those Crazy New Yorkers
No, not copies of the magazine -- I'm speaking of the Big Apple's denizens. At this site you can learn everything you'd possibly want to know about a pastime you didn't even know you needed: building and launching hot-air balloons whose principal ingredients are dry-cleaning bags and birthday candles. As one note says, though, "School Science Projects should probably not have fire attached to balloons. Instead, heat balloons with a Popcorn Popper." Hmm.
The -gry Riddle's Answer
You've probably met this riddle at some point. It's usually cast in terms like, "There are three common words in the English language ending in the letters 'gry.' 'Hungry' is one of the words; 'angry' is another. What's the third?" This has driven me crazy for years. And no wonder -- it turns out that unless you ask the question in exactly the right way, it has no answer.
A Perfect Vacuum in my Head
Editing this issue of At The Margin has got me thinking about things I haven't thought about it in a long time: Dr. Mitchell; science fiction and fantasy; books that might or might not be out of print; the unintended consequences of technology. Now along comes a new computer game called The Sims, which lets you control the lives of sentient beings -- humans, if you will -- who live only inside your computer. All of this converges in the 25- or 30-year-old story called "Non Serviam," one of the selections in Polish writer Stanislaw Lem's A Perfect Vacuum. APV is a collection of "reviews" of nonexistent books; in "Non Serviam," a cyberneticist interacts with and develops a godlike relationship with beings inside his computer. Hmm, again. The book's not out of print, so you should be able to locate a copy easily, including (of course) at Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop.
The Bs and I
I've got this thing for B movies which I suspect is out of all proportion to their cultural relevance. The Astounding B Monster is probably the best site on the Web devoted strictly to these cinematic creatures. Its only drawback? As is common on the Web, its definition of B movies is weighted too heavily towards schlock horror and similar films; you won't find much at all, for example, on the more conventional, less-shocking cheap film-noir titles -- which are much more to my taste (such as it is). For the latter, About.com's set of links to noir-related sites is an outstanding starting point.
Translations and Meanings
The Web is a very odd place, as I don't need to tell you. You can find more thingums and dinguses than you could imagine, and more experiments in linguistic and other interaction than could possibly be considered "normal" in any self-respecting society. The VoyCabulary site is one such experiment. The way it works is that you feed it a URL and it displays the page for you. No big deal, right? Wrong. The trick is that every word on the displayed page is now a hyperlink -- to a dictionary definition, a set of synonyms, or a translation from English into any of 10 languages (or vice-versa). For example, by entering the URL of Floyd Kemske's home page, http://www.thirdlion.com, and playing around a little bit, I have learned that the Welsh word for "book" is "llyfr." (As if that's not enough, I am also informed that "The 'y' inserted between the 'f' and 'r' in 'llyfyr' is an example of an epenthetic vowel.")
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