Saturday, July 25, 2009

Kindling the flames of suppression

So, Jeff Bezos apologized after Amazon sucked copies of 1984 and Animal Farm away from Kindle owners without their permission. So maybe those copies shouldn’t have been available in the first place, but the point remains that

Amazon showed how with Kindle, your library isn’t your library: it belongs to Amazon. Turns out that Kindle's like a super fancy library card.

Slate magazine’s Farhad Manjoo has an insightful and frightening piece about the implications of how our libraries really aren’t our when we sign a terms of service agreement with Amazon for devices such as Kindle. The result is that corporate and government Big Brother-wanna bees get to decide what can stay in what we used to think of as our personal libraries and what can’t.

So let’s conflate time a moment. Here’s a story from a few years back, before Kindle. It was scary then, but it is scarier when considered in context of a Kindle-world.

In the late 1990s, a writer named Susan Perabo published Who I Was Supposed to Be, a short story collection that included a parody in which Batman is a slovenly drunk. Perabo’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, and DC Comics were owned by the same company, and after DC discovered the Batman-as-Drunk story its reps complained to S&S and BAM! POW! ZIP! Perabo’s Batman story disappeared from subsequent editions of the book.

There was no copyright infringement; the Batman parody could easily have been argued as fair use (I know this because of research on this suppression for an article called "Holy Parody, Batman!" that I published in The Writer's Chronicle). This was corporate back-scratching, because a few suits at DC worried that a little short story would harm their brand.

I own a hard copy of what Perabo now calls “The Bat Edition” of her book. But imagine this same thing happening in the Kindle era. What’s different? DC and Simon and Schuster put pressure on Amazon to replace “Bat Editions” with a new Bat-less edition on everyone’s Kindle. Perabo’s story vanishes. You bought the book because you wanted to read the Batman story, but now it’s gone. No trace. Because Amazon and DC said so.

Ironically, Simon & Schuster has published Who I Was Supposed To Be as an e-book.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

"The world must be shrink-wrapped."

That’s what a poet friend wrote me after she learned the details of the following story, which involves dogs in Baltimore (where we live) and traditional Irish music in Montana (which we visit in the summer). It’s a story of serendipity and the awesome smallness of the world. And it’s about one rockin’ button accordion.

We’ll start at Double Rock Park in Parkville, a neighborhood in Baltimore County about a mile from where we live. It’s where we take our dog, Kaimin, most mornings of the week for her run-around-crazy-off-the-leash time. Early on we met a friendly fellow at Double Rock. He was talkative and often wore a little Irish driving cap and his manner suggested that he takes life as it comes. On the back of his car was a bumper sticker about folk music, and he told us where to find some in our neighborhood. We still see him in the park, often say hi, but our dogs don’t get along so swell (Kaimin’s fault) so we don’t chat too often.

Some months later, we’re in Montana planning to attend the National Folk Festival in Butte. This is a big three-day affair that takes over most of uptown Butte and draws acts from all over the country, including (I noted as I read the program) a traditional Irish band called The Pride of New York. And this is not just any traditional Irish band. This is a traditional Irish superband. It’s like the piano player is the Jerry Lee Lewis of Irish piano. And the button accordion player is the Eric Clapton of button accordion players. And they all got together for the first time, for one album.

“We should hear these guys,” I said to my wyf. “The guy from Baltimore plays button accordion. I think I heard him interviewed on the radio one night. The station played his music. It’s good.”

“If he’s in Baltimore,” said the wyf, “we can hear him there.”

Which was a good practical argument, but you see where this is going. At the folk festival I’m perusing the tent where CDs are on sale, and there’s the Pride of New York, and dang … there’s a familiar face holding a button accordion.

“You know that guy who walks his dog at Double Rock?” I said to my wyf.

To make certain, we sat about twenty rows back from the stage.

And yes, it turns out our fellow Double-Rock-Park-in-Parkville-Maryland dog walker is probably the best Irish traditional button accordion player in these United States if not the world.

And we could only learn that by traveling to Butte, Montana.

Awesome smallness. Shrink-wrapped, as my friend says.

We heard half a dozen amazing performances that day, and a few more on the radio the day after. The Pride of New York, featuring Billy McComiskey who walks his dog at Double Rock Park on button accordion, topped them all. “Sian le Maigh,” a mournful tune featuring the penny whistle, drew the first heartfelt standing ovation we’d seen that day. “I hear all of Ireland’s suffering in that song,” said the wyf. This from a Dutch woman! Whose Calvinist people made their kids wear orange on St. Patrick’s Day!

So. Now you also know about The Pride of New York and Billy McComiskey. And you didn’t even have to go to Butte. But you should, anyway. Butte is Evel Knievel’s hometown and has a 1700-feet deep Superfund site that sells postcards. In such places, you might be surprised by the high trill of life’s most serendipitous melodies.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The last word, which was 'honor'

In the summer of 1992, my wife and I were not yet married but living together in a cabin on the banks of the Delaware River. Each morning, we walked a mile or so on a dirt road to the town of Cochecton, N.Y., to buy a copy of The New York Times. The morning of July 4th was no different. Except that day the Times dedicated a full page to a reprint of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was not an advertising gimmick, not sponsored, nor did it even boast “brought to you by The New York Times.” It was the Declaration with no trappings. That afternoon, sitting in rocking chairs on the porch of the cabin, Sheri and I read the Declaration out loud. We took turns, a few paragraphs for her, a few for me..

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness …”

“… He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance. …”

“… these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States …”

And by the last word, which was “honor,” we were changed.

On every Independence Day since, we’ve read the Declaration out loud. Sometimes it has just been the two of us. Often it is with friends after a breakfast of pancakes, eggs and bacon.

If you take a moment between the grilling and the fireworks to read the Declaration aloud, particularly if you read it with friends, I hope you will note the vivacity of the prose, the incisiveness of the reasoning, the passion and certainty and confidence of the spirit. Moreover, recognize that you are reading one of the first documents of a people struggling to find a new way of living that moves beyond monarchy and respects the rights of the individual. It is not perfect – its description of American’s Native peoples is shameful, and we must never forget that while declaring independence because all men were equal, some of the signatories owned slaves. Nevertheless, given the standards of the time, the fact of the document is a marvel. Add its evident power and literary grace, and it is no wonder it has become a kind of secular scripture, our Genesis.

You’ll find your own copy to read here.