Monday, February 9, 2009

Robert Darnton In Print

Reading The New York Review of Books this morning at breakfast, I was fascinated by Robert Darnton defense of the enlightened library in "Google & the Future of Books." Therein the author explains why so much of the available literature online isn't all that it might be; because of copyright law, the commercialization of professional journals and academic publication, and the failure of We The People to act in a timely fashion to preserve our cultural heritage and our libraries from the sticky fingers of market capitalists. Terribly interesting analysis of what's to become of our books. The piece made me hopeful about books being scanned and available online, even as it made me furious to read about who is controlling this process and how this is and is being prevented from happening.

One point not addressed in Darnton's piece was the curious business in publishing of maintaining copyrights without actually keeping a book in print. At the Used Books Desk last week we bought a used copy of a little Signet classic of Sinclair Lewis' Dodsworth. Originally published in 1929, the edition we bought to resell was reprinted several times, our copy sometime in the mid sixties, originally priced at ninety five cents. So far as I can tell, the last Signet reprint was in 1995. The title is now out of print, except as part of the Library of America hardcover volume of Lewis. Know what that actually means? It means that one of the most famous titles of an American Nobel Prize winner can only be had as a used book, often obscenely priced by dealers online as a "rare" book, even in paperback. Because of current copyright law, you will not find the full text of this novel online. Even if you could, for the same reason, you would probably have to pay a fee to access it or print a copy for yourself. In practical terms, this means no one may teach this title in schools or colleges without ridiculous expense to the student and or the institution of learning. This also means no library with a copy can affordably replace the book if it is lost or damaged. This means no one can buy a copy to read unless one chooses to hunt one up used and one is willing to pay a ridiculous price to do so. This means, for now, Dodsworth is dead.

Sinclair Lewis now lives in bookstores by only two or three titles: Main Street and Babbitt, and maybe Elmer Gantry or It Can't Happen Here. No short stories, no Arrowsmith, no Ann Vickers, No Dodsworth. Of Lewis' twenty some books, maybe three are actually in bookstores to be purchased, owned and read.

I'm not suggesting that every word Lewis wrote ought to be commercially available. I'm not even suggesting that every novel he wrote ought to be read. I am suggesting, based on the Darnton article and my own experience as a bookseller of new and used books that the present state of the legacy of Lewis and American literature in general is disgraceful. I am suggesting that Signet not reprinting an affordable paperback edition of Dodsworth in fourteen years, or letting the title pass into public domain, is disgraceful.

Read the Darnton piece. See if you don't come away from it as hopeful, and as angry as I did this morning.

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