What Would Dickens Do?

It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read this blog that I have a bit of a …problem with bookstores. Once (stupidly), I even tallied up the money I’d spent in such stores over the course of a year. Let’s just say it came frighteningly close to an entire month’s rent.

And yet, despite the fact that I buy books far more frequently than a non-robot could finish them, I’ve never come down hard on myself for this particular vice. After all, I’m not compulsively buying cheeseburgers, or Beanie Babies, or bank stocks. Even when e-readers take over and everyone converts their paperbacks into coffee tables, books don’t expire. Forty-year-old me can still curl up with a hardcover and a disproportionately large glass of wine.

For me, books are an investment. Not only in my intellectual fulfillment, and not only in guaranteed commute fodder for literally decades to come. I love reading, and so I invest in the people who make it possible. I want Jonathan Franzen to sit at home all day, ruminating on his next 600-page analysis of the 21st century marriage. I want David Sedaris to lackadaisically roam France for months on end, penning diatribes on everything from the language barrier to the mating habits of local spiders. To me, there would be nothing sadder than Don DeLillo working a day job at Starbucks. 

I suppose I owe you some context: A few weeks ago, a friend of mine admitted to using his newly purchased Nook to steal books (because obviously handing Barnes & Noble the initial $250 really stuck it to the system), and although said friend and I have argued about piracy in the past, I found myself appalled anew at the thought of him ripping literature. Despite my first-person familiarity with the erosion of journalism, I guess I’d held out hope that art, and especially books, would always be worth some price of admission.

Unfortunately, common sense suggests it’s only a matter of time before book piracy takes off, even if/when the price of e-books goes down. Dedicated nerds will remember The Plant, a novel Stephen King decided to publish in online installments in 2000. His promise was that he’d only offer the next installment if 75% of those who downloaded the first one paid for it—paid anything at all, even $1. The book was never published in full.

This irks me. If Stephen King asks you to put a dollar directly in his pocket for something he created, and you won’t, then really it has nothing to do with sticking it to corporate America or fighting against some entrenched publishing-industry cronyism. It’s just a refusal to pay for something that can technically be had for free.

Perhaps this is a digital-age tragedy of the commons; we know someone somewhere is paying, so it’s probably fine if we don’t. Or maybe, as a different friend in the aforementioned conversation suggested, we refuse to pay because we don’t believe artists deserve to make a living off of their art. (It’s worth noting that this friend also said he didn’t consider novels art in the first place.)

It’s certainly fair to say it’s a cruel world and there’s no guarantee that a knack for writing means you’ll get to make it your life’s work. I’m not arguing otherwise. But if the end game is a time when no one is willing to pay for anything, are we prepared for a world without professional authors? Professional artists? Professional musicians? Is it worth losing out on potential masters of their craft, simply because we’re too busy insisting that content be free? Ewan Morrison, in a prettay depressing Wired column last month, sums it up better than I ever could: “To ask whether International Man Booker prizewinner Philip Roth could have written 24 novels and the award-winning American trilogy without advances is like asking if Michelangelo could have painted the Sistine Chapel without the patronage of Pope Julius II.”

I wish I was about to draw as prolific a conclusion here, but I feel as baffled by the idea of book piracy as I do angry. I don’t even know if it’s the norm, or if I just happen to be friends with delinquents. (Nor did I make any headway with said delinquents: the conversation devolved into me quietly nursing my Miller High Life.) It’s hard for me to argue with people who see no ethical issue with piracy; I don’t understand why they don’t see the potential bottom line: a place where authors can’t support themselves, where we’ve worked so hard to discredit arbiters of taste (editors, producers, etc.) that we’re left with more content than we could hope to parse through in a lifetime, including an unhealthy number of Vision Quests, my grandmother’s self-published novel, which would have—appropriately, I might add—never passed muster at a publishing house.

All I do know is that it’s a mistake to associate the availability of information with the quality of it. I’m totally in favor of a system that balances the two, but it’s not my place to bypass ethics until that happy medium is reached. And so I will happily keep investing in authors until the day the system collapses in on itself. By then I should have enough paperbacks to build a dining room set.

2 thoughts on “What Would Dickens Do?”

  1. On some level, I think this has always been an issue. As you pointed out, Michelangelo had the patronage of a pope, but what you omit is that few artists had the patronage of peasants. Most classical “art” like painting and sculpture is paid for by a relatively small group of elites and some of it happens to trickle down to the masses. You just may be the modern equivalent of Pope Julius II.

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