I met Iris Chang about a year and a half ago. She was passing through Los Angeles, and she stopped at the bookstore where I used to work to sign some copies of her book, The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. The book hadn’t rewritten history and showered her with critical acclaim like The Rape of Nanking. But this time her book tour had taken her to Chinese-American cultural centers, which she seemed to appreciate. She was talkative in a quiet sort of way and lingered for a long time talking to the staff and browsing the shelves.The news that she committed suicide is a shock. As are the suggestions that she was driven to this by looking too long and too hard into the parts of human history that rest of the world works so hard to forget. We need historians and authors like Chang to remind us of what we are capable of. (More on Chang from the SF Chronicle.)
Michael Hart and Gregory Newby at HOPE Conference
Public domain e-books are dear to me as a writer (where would I be without my fixes of Dreiser and other favorites?), and the man most responsible for them is now dead.
Vinton Cerf and colleagues gave us the Internet, with Al Gore cheering them on. But it was Michael Stern Hart of Project Gutenberg who popularized the Net as a book library. He died September 6 at age 64 at his home in Urbana, Illinois, after a long series of health woes, with more than 36,000 free Gutenberg books on the Web, in 60 languages, as his legacy. How to take this personally? I, too, have devoted years of my life to e-books, and coincidentally my middle name is the same as Michael’s last. He and I were born just weeks apart. In September 2008, I suffered a heart attack, and in the same month in 2011, he died of one.
Like many boomers, both of us distrusted Washington politicians. But Michael outdid me. He passionately opposed my vision of a well-stocked national digital library system, a priority to me as an ex-poverty beat reporter who had seen too many bookless homes but knew that cheapie color tablets would one day reach Kmart. Even William F. Buckley, Jr. could go for that one, in two “On the Right” columns, despite my port-side politics. But Michael’s fear of Washington knew no bounds.
Michael also loathed my advocacy of the ePub standard for the formats of digital books, now used by Apple, Sony, and Barnes & Noble (albeit often gummed up by proprietary copy protection).
As both a reader and editor-publisher of the TeleRead e-book site, I hated the Tower of eBabel that the industry had created before ePub. You don’t need Company X’s glasses to read paper books by author Y. Shouldn’t even commercial e-books be the same, regardless of Jeff Bezos’ proprietary tendencies? Michael somehow never understood.
But regardless of major differences about e-books and life in general–the man so often thrived on chaos, whether technical or organizational–how could I not respect Michael’s vision and idealism? Not to mention his tenacity. Michael’s very first digitization, on July 4, 1971, was of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Even with optical character recognition technology used today, it can be challenging for volunteers to produce accurate digital editions in ePub and other text-rather-than-image formats. Automation will take you only so far if you want a top-notch reproduction. Distributed Proofreaders, an allied group, originates many of the titles and is now Gutenberg’s main source of books.
Michael’s big gift to the cosmos wasn’t just the creation of the Gutenberg Web site and the accompanying communities of diligent volunteers. He also encouraged other sites to spread the books around–realizing that the best way to defend the public domain was to promote the popular use of it. Google may make the most money off the classics, and at the most lofty level, let’s hope that the Harvard-based Digital Public Library of American can succeed; just don’t forget the real Godfather of free E.
Certain academics and librarians have knocked the Godfather’s books for less than perfectly accurate reproductions of the originals. Scholars should care. But what about another kind of preservation? Michael helped keep the classics much more on the minds of the young than they would otherwise be.
The 1998 Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, the ultimate anti-Michael, anti-library law or close to it, outraged many beneficiaries of his toil. Washington doled out 20 more years; that meant a writer’s life plus 70 and still more for corporately authored works. Even and especially as a writer, I agreed with Michael. Copyright exists to spur us on, and last I knew, F. Scott Fitzgerald was not churning out Great Gatsby sequels from St. Mary’s Cemetery. Some posthumous royalties for wives, sons, and daughters of writers for a reasonable time? Definitely, as I myself see it. But, to cite Michael’s wit from years ago, America does not need a “copyright gentry.” Without him around to popularize digital freebies, the Bonoized terms might have stretched even longer. Of course, if e-books hadn’t existed, not to mention Walt Disney’s profits to safeguard, maybe Congress would never have passed the so-called Mickey Mouse Protection Act in the first place. Ironically Michael’s free e-books helped put the medium on the radar of lawyers keen on monetizing as many bits and bytes as they could, schools and libraries be damned.
Alas, Michael was too wild as a potential lead plaintiff for Lawrence Lessig, a noted copyright lawyer, to use in lawsuit against the Bono Act (yes, named after the late entertainer), so another worthy purveyor of free books, Eric Eldred, substituted.
The fight reached the Supreme Court, but, sadly, they lost.
Not everyone loves the public domain. Gutenberg’s giveaways have unnerved even some writers without multi-million-dollar estates awaiting their families. Imagine having to compete against dead geniuses whose brilliance the masses can download at no cost. But as an author, I’m better off for Michael’s digitization work. I can more easily draw inspiration from Dreiser’s compassion and realism, visit and revisit the Dickens classics I missed in school, or instantly look up a quote from The Education of Henry Adams.
To teach or write literature, you must read it first, and not just modern books; and Michael vastly simplified the process.
Even some publishers may have come out ahead, since lively classics like Jules Verne’s can encourage readers to go on to modern novels and actually shell out cash. Goodwill and advertising and other commercial possibilities are hardly the only reason why Google, Amazon, Apple, and others carry free public domain writings on their Web sites.
Beyond the world of e-publishing, imagine what Michael’s thousands of free e-books mean to, say, community college students without the cultural and intellectual advantages he enjoyed growing up.
Michael’s own parents were professors at the University of Illinois, his father a Shakespearean scholar, his mother a mathematician. Alice Woodby survives her son, as does his brother, Bennett. The Hart family reared Michael to be unconventional and skeptical, which jibed with his love of a quote from George Bernard Shaw: “Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.”
Of course, on e-book standards, I thought Michael was endlessly unreasonable in the traditional sense. He most of all venerated the plain old ASCII text format, which really isn’t a book standard at all, given the need of publishers for little amenities such as italics and bold rendered in good form without fuss. I joined a brave and prescient techie named Jon Noring in pushing a consumer-friendly format called OpenReader, the existence of which prodded the main industry trade group to create and promote ePub, which in the end was fine by me since I cared more about a standard format than about the OpenReader organization. Michael at least tacitly encouraged a wacky troll to go after us standards advocates. At times like those, Planet Earth would have been better off with Gutenberg’s leader as a quiescent son of Dale Carnegie.
Physically, Michael was a short, stout, bearded man fond of showmanship; in at least one photo he wore a top hat, perhaps in part to flaunt his love of the supposedly obsolete, not just to “pull books out of the hat.” That wasn’t the only eccentricity. I never visited his house in Urbana; but a mutual friend did as one of Gutenberg’s thousands of volunteers, and in an online chat she recalled it was “bursting at the seams with books and computer gadgetry. He had to shower in the basement. No decent bathroom.” Michael cared less about such trifles than about tidy e-files for Project Gutenberg (and about amassing the paper books he so often gave away). Remember, this guy sprinkled sugar on his pizza.
Michael could be just as quirky in composing his emails. As remembered by his friend Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive, which built on Gutenberg’s work, Michael would manually insert extra spaces between words in correspondence to justify them so they lined up evenly to the right. Michael saw word-wrap as a wicked destroyer of “my phraseology.”
What a mix of the backwards and forward looking! As a novel, Michael would have been a brilliant, sprawling classic from the 19th century–offensive to the order-minded but still a “must read” for the discerning.
The good news is that Shavian unreasonableness notwithstanding, Michael was realistic about his health and–to use his own words, quoted in Brewster’s blog–planned a “graceful exit.” Gregory Newby, a computer scientist at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the same visionary who included a 1990s incarnation of my national digital library proposal in an MIT Press/ASIS information science collection, is Gutenberg’s chief executive. He has devoted thousands of hours of his life to running Gutenberg day to day. And the format wars? Well, I hope they’re winding down at least somewhat. Nowadays you can download thousands of Gutenberg books not just in plain ASCII and in other formats but also in the one of my dreams–nonDRMed ePub.
Many thanks, Michael and Greg, for that and much more regardless of the detours along the way. I hope that Gutenberg lasts at least as long as the most durable of the classics it has digitized.
Image credit: Marcello
Glenn Goldman, founder and owner of Book Soup, an independent book store in West Hollywood died yesterday. Goldman died of pancreatic cancer, an illness that came on suddenly, and he leaves behind two sons and his store. Glenn created, almost out of nothing, a great treasure of a book store that has meant a lot to me, and I’ll always be thankful to him for that.I started working at Book Soup in late 2001. I needed money and jobs were tough to come by, and I had been fairly discouraged by what I’d been doing in Los Angeles to that point.Book Soup became special to me for three reasons. First, almost immediately it broadened my reading horizons. I’d always been an active, curious reader but within weeks of working at Book Soup, I realized how proscribed my knowledge of books had been. Despite growing up in a house full of books and despite taking more than a few literature classes in college, my true introduction to the world of literature and publishing was being surrounded by books for three years and meeting dozens of writers who stopped by the store. Glenn handled all the book ordering at the store, and every book I read during that time was at my fingertips because of him.Secondly, I met a bunch of amazing people, several of whom I’m still in touch with today (including Edan, who writes for this blog, and her husband Patrick who used to). Los Angeles isn’t exactly the intellectual wasteland that east-coasters (and San Franciscans) make it out to be, but the concentration of wonderful minds and vibrant personalities at that store was a very special thing, particularly in that city, but anywhere really. However different we all were, we shared a love for books and an appreciation for the sublime wackiness inherent in a book store on the Sunset Strip. I met a lot of smart people in Los Angeles, but the bookstore that Glenn built was the intellectual center of the city for me. Right there, in the neon, limousine wasteland of the Sunset Strip were thousands of books. It was a crazy, brilliant idea.Finally, looking back, it seems clear to me that my job at Book Soup was one of those pivotal experiences that set my life on a certain course.More than five years ago, I decided to use this blog to write about books, and that decision was almost solely based on my experience working at Book Soup and wanting to bring it home with me. The blog and what I learned from running it, propelled me to go to graduate school for journalism and it introduced to me to hundreds of new people. I was able to put this great team of writers together and I landed on the radio and have seen my name in newspapers and magazines.The point is: I owe quite a lot to this blog. This blog owes everything to Book Soup. And Book Soup owes everything to Glenn Goldman. He will be missed.More: The LA Times obit, Edan remembers, Patrick remembers
It would be a shame if the death of the Russian novelist Vasily Aksyonov yesterday got lost in the welter of cultural losses that surrounds it. Aksyonov is one of the towering literary figures of the postwar era – one who might have been more widely recognized as such were it not for the strictures of Soviet publishing culture. In his novels The Burn, The New Sweet Style, and especially Generations of Winter (which we have championed at this site), Aksyonov synthesized the Tolstoyan legacy of the 19th Century with the innovating impulses of the revolutionary generation. In making Russian literary tradition his own, and re-opening its dialogue with the rest of world literature, he pointed the way for the novelists who would succeed him. I can think of no more fitting way to honor him than to read him.