Sunday, January 19, 2014

Is Sherlock Holmes Dead?

There's a new-ish feature on what is. increasingly it seems, the favorite social media of the middle aged, i.e. facebook.  Presumably in response to the rise (and for some of us, the fall) of Goodreads, one is now encouraged to list favorite movies and music, sports teams and, yes, books in a new and more visually satisfying way.  Rather than the old, print lists of "favorites" on one's profile, each cultural category now has a distinct, featured position, mit picture, yet.  There is an option to mark each selection, of the movies for instance, as "watched" by adding it to one's list, but also to add titles one "want(s) to watch" and a review system of one to five stars with which to "rate" the movies.  Like similar social media posting, these facebook options can be a surprisingly useful aide-memoire, a delightful waste of time, and no doubt yet another means of collecting data for our Internet overlords.  (What for me makes such potential commercial exploitation still more amusing than disturbing is made hilariously clear by the use to which my profile-information has been put to date, by facebook.  I'm fifty years old.  Let the words, "enhanced male virility" stand for the whole.  So much for the sophistication of the new algorithms.)

Another reassuringly clumsy and democratic detail of all of this new cultural record-keeping on facebook is something I remember from my time as a contributor to... that book-site I still regret.  With a really quite shocking regularity, these facebook-lists may have quite the wrong picture associated with a title.  Again an example from their available film titles, and a personal favorite, from 1961, A Majority of One, starring Rosalind Russell and Alec Guinness.  (Allowing for the very Hollywood casting of Russell as a Jewish mama and Guinness as a Japanese gentleman, it's a charmingly sentimental little romance and very funny.) The facebook listing features not the movie poster, but a production still from the original Broadway play, starring Gertrude Berg and Sir Cedric Hardwicke!  (So, on Broadway at least, ethnic-sensitivity-wise, they got it half right.)  This kind of regular confusion and misidentification reminds us that the Internet can still be quite hit-or-miss when it comes to the available facts. It seems the only picture of the movie poster is not of sufficiently high "resolution" for inclusion on the website, whereas, inexplicably, the photo from the Broadway show is.  That's my best detective work, anyway.  This also reminds us that to contribute "content" to even the most sophisticated commercial enterprises online may not require much actual expertise, and that, often as not, even the most scrupulously honest contributor may not have all the options we now assume with the Internet actually available when needed.  This would just be one more very small example of how things in the digital age are indeed not always what they seem.

A more disturbing tendency with the listing of books on facebook is the complete absence of loads of standard books from any listing at all -- particularly true of contemporary poetry, I've found, but just as likely with minor English and American classics.  can there really be no one else who's recently read the latest book from Mark Strand?  No available picture of a late Saul Bellow title?  Worse in a way though, is something that seems to me indicative of a wider trend of the digital age -- and which brings us finally to the topic at hand.

Among the titles listed as "books" on facebook, are a number of things that simply aren't.  I suppose a case might be made, in some cases, for using the word in an older sense, as when "The Book of Job" or "The Book of Revelations" are listed as titles in their own right, rather than just assumed as chapters in the Bible.  (Anyone not actually in adult Sunday School who can get through that last, for instance, in my opinion deserves to mark the accomplishment somehow, if only by marking it as "read" on facebook.)  What strikes me as far more pernicious are the listing of titles like The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, and The Adventure of the Red Circle, as books.  This is ridiculous.  The first is a short story from the book, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and the latter, of course, also a short story from the book, His Last Bow.  Naturally, there have been collections of Holmes short stories published under titles other than the original.  That's clearly not what's happening here.  No.  Instead, individual short stories are being listed as if each story somehow constituted a book; a discrete work of art, yes, but also by suggestion here at least, an extant object published and sold as a book.

Why?  There might be a case made for the innocence and presumed youth of some of the facebook contributors, and the obvious absence of editorial control.  Some kid reads The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, and adds it, with a sometimes random Holmes illustration.  Possible, but not very likely, I should think, considering that the illustrations used rather than book covers, at least so far as I can judge, would seem to correspond to the titles.  But, even if this is the work of younger readers, that makes the phenomenon no less unsettling.  So, maybe with the online generation used to buying recorded music by the song, the distinction between having read a short story and having read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is being lost on newer readers?  How is that not a horrible thing?

But then, I don't believe that that is actually what's happened here, or at least not the only explanation.  I think I can be forgiven for seeing a more cynical, if not actually sinister effort here; a way of inflating the stats, as it were, by and for adults who see some exaggerated value in the number rather than the quality or interest of the books listed as read.  This is the same impulse, presumably, that leads to posted resolutions "to read 100 books this year," as if that was a meaningful measure of either literacy or character for anyone after the sixth grade.  (This sort of thing always strikes me as every bit as banal and embarrassing in adults as posts announcing a walk, or having eaten a healthy breakfast, or getting to work on time.  Good for you, fellow grown up.)

Either way, as an indication of the disappearance of distinction between literary forms for young readers on the Internet, or as a way for what my beloved husband, A. would call "a grown-ass-man" -- or woman -- to feel better about how little they actually read, this business of conflating a short story into a book  seems to me a disastrous concession to the culture of self-esteem, disrespectful to the reader and to the integrity of the books exploited and exploded into their component parts.

Now, on a related topic, what with all the all the publicity surrounding the return of the BBC's  Sherlock to American television, the other day in the bookstore, I thought it might be the moment to make a display of Conan Doyle's books.  Not a very original idea, I know.  Still, worth doing I thought.  There are new promotional titles just out on the TV show, and as there are now not one, but two successful modern television adaptations running, in addition of course to the Guy Ritchie film franchise, this would seem to be a moment, no?

Up to the Mystery section then I went, to find... two mass market paperbacks of The Hound of the Baskervilles, a couple of Dover collections of some of the short stories, and maybe five used books of various titles, including of course a couple of copies of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  There was one recent and rather pretty Penguin hardcover  (of guess which novel?!) but no Modern Library, no Everyman's.  Evidently, the recently revised Annotated Sherlock Holmes has been allowed to go out of print.  I could find no available, American edition of the novels or the stories online from Penguin, or Oxford, and nothing from Harper's, etc.  I ordered back in the Signet Classic edition of The Complete Sherlock Holmes in two, mass market paperback volumes.  I put the other Dover books in print on order as well.  (I had a rather ugly, but complete one volume, hardcover edition of Sherlock Holmes come across the desk used, just the other day, and I bought it for stock before I realized it was water-damaged and had to toss it.)  Not much of a display.

And not, I hasten to add, any fault of the section's buyer.  Can't stock what isn't available. 

I don't want to be mistaken here as a serious Sherlockian.  I don't belong to any society, or know the names of minor villains.  I can't tell you off the top of my head the name of the martial art practised by the great detective, or remember if it was a real thing or an invention.  I have read all three novels, and all of the stories, many of them more than once.  I've read some, though by no means a representative selection of the "tribute" fiction written by various hands, and at least one, full biography of Conan Doyle, as well as some serious criticism. I've read more than a few of the entertaining proceedings and papers of the aforementioned learned, and sometimes delightfully silly Societies.  (A recent purchase being Laurie R. King's book of just such papers and introductions, etc., printed on the bookstore's EBM machine.  Published this way, as I understand it, with the approval and good wishes of the novelist herself.  Delightful stuff, by the way.  It is from thence that I am reminded that American fans are Sherlockians while their British cousins are called Holmesians, for example.)

I mention all this so as not to seem to be about the business of any special pleading as a member of "the cult" of Sherlock Holmes.  Just a fan, and a bookseller.  It is as the latter that I take this opportunity to decry the sorry state of affairs when something as reliable as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes books are not to be found in anything like a representative selection in even a great independent bookstore, through no fault of the bookseller.

How is such a thing even possible?!

That question is not offered rhetorically.  I don't begin to understand the situation, or have any serviceable explanation for why there would not still be every possibility of buying Sherlock Holmes in every conceivable variation of edition, design and style.  Perhaps it is something to do with the recent expiration of the original copyright at last, and the passage of the books into public domain.  (A ridiculous, and perfectly typical example of the all but endless extension of copyright into the remotest generation.  Did the ol' boy himself really expect his posterity to benefit exclusively from his labors down so far as to this day?  Was he really writing to provide an income to the great grandchildren's children, if any?  Or is it by now a matter of estate lawyers, whoever now owns some interest via the original publishers, and the remotest of third cousins and or benefiting dog hospitals, or theosophical societies and the like?)  Maybe there's nothing now to prevent almost anyone from printing and distributing these titles, but I can see no evidence to date of anyone much gathering the windfall. 

What to my mind makes all this so lamentable is that even as these wonderful stories reach new generations in new ways and in new formats and variations, I as a bookseller have so few options for putting these delightful books into the hands of readers, new and old alike.

Should it really be easier to find fan-fiction and television scripts than the books as written by their true author?

I have no doubt there will always be readers of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes.  I should hate to think that the day is coming when it will only be possible to do so in used bookstores and in the higgledy-piggledy of Internet access; without the organizing influence of the author's intention, where a "book" might mean anything from an actual novel to a single story in isolation, out of order and subject to any damned arrangement and available, digital format.

Sherlock Lives.  Always will, one way and another.  But what way, if not as books?  And how is anyone to find him?

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