Sherlock Holmes is Now in the United States Public Domain

Hear ye, hear ye. A federal judge has ruled that Sir Author Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories and (most of) the related characters  are now in the public domain. The New York Times arts beat blog reports:

A federal judge has issued a declarative judgment stating that Holmes, Watson, 221B Baker Street, the dastardly Professor Moriarty and other elements included in the 50 Holmes works that Arthur Conan Doyle published before Jan. 1, 1923, are no longer covered by United States copyright law, and can therefore be freely used by others without paying any licensing fee to the writer’s estate.

The ruling came in response to a civil complaint filed in February by Leslie S. Klinger, the editor of the three-volume, nearly 3,000-page “New Annotated Sherlock Holmes” and a number of other Holmes-related books. The complaint stemmed from “In the Company of Sherlock Holmes,” a collection of new Holmes stories written by different authors and edited by Mr. Klinger and Laurie R. King, herself the author of a mystery series featuring Mary Russell, Holmes’s wife.

But there is a minor twist, because anything that is less than 75 years old is still copyrighted:

Chief Judge Rubén Castillo of the United States District Court of the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, stated that elements introduced in Holmes stories published after 1923 — such as the fact that Watson played rugby for Blackheath, or had a second wife — remain under copyright in the United States. (All of the Holmes stories are already in the public domain in Britain.)

I haven’t seen the show Elementary, but I have enjoyed episodes of the British show Sherlock.

What Mike Tyson Is Reading

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Mike Tyson wants you to be aware of his erudite side:

I’m currently reading “The Quotable Kierkegaard,” edited by Gordon Marino, a collection of awesome quotes from that great Danish philosopher. (He wanted his epitaph to read: “In yet a little while / I shall have won; / Then the whole fight / Will all at once be done.”) I love reading philosophy. Most philosophers are so politically incorrect—challenging the status quo, even challenging God. Nietzsche’s my favorite. He’s just insane. You have to have an IQ of at least 300 to truly understand him. Apart from philosophy, I’m always reading about history. Someone very wise once said the past is just the present in funny clothes. I read everything about Alexander, so I downloaded “Alexander the Great: The Macedonian Who Conquered the World” by Sean Patrick. Everyone thinks Alexander was this giant, but he was really a runt. “I would rather live a short life of glory than a long one of obscurity,” he said. I so related to that, coming from Brownsville, Brooklyn.

What did I have to look forward to—going in and out of prison, maybe getting shot and killed, or just a life of scuffling around like a common thief? Alexander, Napoleon, Genghis Khan, even a cold pimp like Iceberg Slim—they were all mama’s boys. That’s why Alexander kept pushing forward. He didn’t want to have to go home and be dominated by his mother. In general, I’m a sucker for collections of letters. You think you’ve got deep feelings? Read Napoleon’s love letters to Josephine. It’ll make you think that love is a form of insanity. Or read Virginia Woolf’s last letter to her husband before she loaded her coat up with stones and drowned herself in a river. I don’t really do any light reading, just deep, deep stuff. I’m not a light kind of guy.

I prefer to read the deep, deep stuff as well. Mike Tyson, you have (marginally) redeemed yourself.

The Best Books Bill Gates Read in 2013

I am a fan of the end-of-year lists, and this one from Bill Gates on the best books he’s read this year, is excellent:

  • The Box, by Marc Levinson. You might think you don’t want to read a whole book about shipping containers. And Levinson is pretty self-aware about what an unusual topic he chose. But he makes a good case that the move to containerized shipping had an enormous impact on the global economy and changed the way the world does business. And he turns it into a very readable narrative. I won’t look at a cargo ship in quite the same way again.
  • The Most Powerful Idea in the World, by William Rosen. A bit like The Box, except it’s about steam engines. Rosen weaves together the clever characters, incremental innovations, and historical context behind this invention. I’d wanted to know more about steam engines since the summer of 2009, when my son and I spent a lot of time hanging out at the Science Museum in London.
  • Harvesting the Biosphere, by Vaclav Smil. There is no author whose books I look forward to more than Vaclav Smil. Here he gives as clear and as numeric a picture as is possible of how humans have altered the biosphere. The book is a bit dry and I had to look up a number of terms that were unfamiliar to me, but it tells a critical story if you care about the impact we’re having on the planet.
  • The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond. It’s not as good as Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. But then, few books are. Diamond finds fascinating anecdotes about what life is like for hunter-gatherers and asks which ones might apply to our modern lifestyles. He doesn’t make some grand pronouncement or romanticize tribal life. He just wants to find the best practices and share them.
  • Poor Numbers, by Morten Jerven. Jerven, an economist, spent four years digging into how African nations get their statistics and the challenges they face in turning them into GDP estimates. He makes a strong case that a lot of GDP measurements we thought were accurate are far from it. But as I argue in my longer review, that doesn’t mean we know nothing about what works in development.

What are the best books you’ve read this year?

One in Ten People in Iceland Will Publish a Book

This island nation of  Iceland, population of just over 300,000 people, has more writers, more books published, and more books read, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. An intriguing report in the BBC:

It is hard to avoid writers in Reykjavik. There is a phrase in Icelandic, “ad ganga med bok I maganum”, everyone gives birth to a book. Literally, everyone “has a book in their stomach”. 

“Does it get rather competitive?” I ask the young novelist, Kristin Eirikskdottir. “Yes. Especially as I live with my mother and partner, who are also full-time writers. But we try to publish in alternate years so we do not compete too much.”

Special saga tours – saga as in story, that is, not over-50s holidays – show us story-plaques on public buildings.

Dating from the 13th Century, Icelandic sagas tell the stories of the country’s Norse settlers, who began to arrive on the island in the late 9th Century.

Sagas are written on napkins and coffee cups. Each geyser and waterfall we visit has a tale of ancient heroes and heroines attached. Our guide stands up mid-tour to recite his own poetry – our taxi driver’s father and grandfather write biographies.

Public benches have barcodes so you listen to a story on your smartphone as you sit.

The book buying and giving culture is strong in Iceland:

About now every household gets a book catalogue through the door. They pore over it like a furniture catalogue. Everyone receives books as Christmas presents – hardback and shrink-wrapped.

So if I want to publish a book in my lifetime, should I move to Iceland? Or at least, take an extended vacation there?

Fifty Years of Headlines from The New York Review of Books

The New York Review of Books is celebrating 50 years of existence. Writing on the blog, Matthew Howard put together a fantastic collection of titles that have appeared in the magazine over the years:

Throughout its first fifty years, The New York Review of Books has asked many questions: What is Art? How Did it Happen? Where Do We Go From Here?Yonder Shakespeare, Who Is He? Tennis Anyone? How Dead is Arnold Schoenberg? Aimez-Vous Rousseau? Is There a Marxist in the House? How Smelly Was the Palladian Villa? Do Fish Have Nostrils?

It has also addressed many other more serious questions: The Suez QuestionThe Heidegger QuestionSenator Proxmire’s QuestionsQuestions About Kafka. Sometimes it broached The Unanswered Question, or even Answers Without Questions. But some questions the Review answered forthrightly: Was it Xenophanes? It Was. The Roof? It Was. Knopf? No. Freud? It Wasn’t. And it has tackled many mysteries: LeonardoSchizophreniaThe Libidinous Molecule.Dutch PaintingInnocenceConsciousnessThe Panda.

If God is in the details, the Review has examined many of them: God’s Country,Milton’s GodThe Great God WishGod in the ComputerGod in the Hands of Angry Sinners. The devil has also been given his due: his Disciple, his Brew, looking him in the FaceThe Devil and LolitaThe Devil and the FleshSex and the Devil.

Speaking of sex, the Review has not been shy about it: Sex in the HeadSex and FashionSex & CzechsSex and the Church, not to mention Sex and Democracy in TaiwanThe Victorian Sex WarsThe Same-Sex FutureThose Sexy Puritans.

 In some cases the Review has given stern, if useful, advice: Don’t Sing Your Crap.Don’t Say “Boo” to a GooseDon’t Tread on UsDon’t Forget KeynesDon’t Mind If I DoTell, Don’t ShowDon’t Take Our Raphael!

Exclamations! They started in 1963 with Oy! Then Oy, Oy! came the reply, inaugurating an exuberant tradition that, five decades later, numbers well over two hundred examples. Pshaw! Gulp! Excelsior! Ach! (Those were all in the first few years.) Coleridge Lives! Nixon Wins! Kids, Pull Up Your Socks! Screwed! Get a Lawyer! Ah, Wilderness! Yuk! How Unpleasant to Meet Mr. Baudelaire! That’s Earl, Folks! O Albany! The Pizza Is Burning! It’s For Your Own Good!

There have been more than a few firsts (The First LaughFirst LoveThe First BookFirst Trip to China) and quite a lot of lasts: The Last WordWhig,IntellectualHippieRomantic, and HarpoonThe Last Word on EvilThe Last Days of Nietzsche (also of NaturePinochetthe PoetsNew York, and Hong Kong). Endings have been a particular theme: The End of the AffairEnd of the LineEnd of its Tether—but also, more hopefully, The Beginning of the End,Oddly Brilliant Beginnings, and Where the Fun Starts. 

Games have been played: The Lying GameConfidence GamesCat-and-Mouse GamesThe Waiting Game in the BalkansWar Games in the Senate. And many Strange and Curious Cases have been described, from that of Pushkin and Nabokov through Jefferson’s Subpoenathe Spotted Mice, and the Loony Lexicographer.

 Review headlines have been rich in superlatives: The Best of TimesThe Worst of TimesThe Best Turnips on the CreekHow to Be Your Own Worst EnemyThe Best of Both WorldsThe Worst Place on EarthThe Best Faces of the EnlightenmentThe Worst of the TerrorThe Best He Could Do.

There have been repeat titles (for instance, Hello to All That appeared as the title at least on four occasions). Lots to dig through the expanded list here.

BiblioTech: The Country’s First Bookless Library Opens in Texas

This week, an all-digital public library in Bexar County, Texas opened its doors. The facility offers 10,000 free e-books for the 1.7 million residents of the county (which includes San Antonio). NPR has more:

On its website, the Bexar County BiblioTech library explains how its patrons can access free eBooks and audio books. To read an eBook on their own device, users must have the 3M Cloud Library app, which they can link to their library card.

The app includes a countdown of days a reader has to finish a book — starting with 14 days, according to My San Antonio.

The library has a physical presence, as well, with 600 e-readers and 48 computer stations, in addition to laptops and tablets. People can also come for things like kids’ story time and computer classes, according to the library’s website.

Is this the future of the library? I sure hope that physical books will remain a core of the library for years to come.

On Measuring Popularity in the Digital Age and the Driving Forces of Pop Culture

The New York Times on Popularity

The New York Times on Popularity

The New York Times Magazine has a fascinating interactive feature of what it means to be popular in modern culture. There’s a lot to digest in the post, but the gist is here:

Where does this leave the concept of popularity? Paradoxically, popularity is now both infinitely quantifiable and infinitely elusive. We’re awash in cold data even as we try and reconcile how these numbers relate to our larger intuitive sense of what people like. Back in 1940, Billboard published a single music chart, simply named the Best-Selling Retail Records, which solely tracked sales. Later, the Billboard Hot 100 collated several factors — radio play, jukebox popularity and sales — into one measure of overall success. Around the same time, the lone tree grew several categorical limbs: R. & B., country, rap and so on, each taking the measure of popularity in a different genre. From one chart grew many. This seemed to make sense.

Then the methodology evolved even further: paid downloads were included in 2005; digital streams in 2007. The top-selling song was no longer necessarily the most popular song in the country. Now it could simply be the song that the most people, somewhere, were listening to, somehow. Then, this year, Billboard announced it would include YouTube playbacks as part of its rankings, and the song “Harlem Shake” immediately became the No. 1 song in America. This was thanks largely to a snippet of it being used as the soundtrack for thousands of viral YouTube videos. That meme, like most, burned out quick as a Roman candle. So instead of “Remember the summer of ‘Harlem Shake’?” we might one day say wistfully, “Remember the two weeks in February of ‘Harlem Shake’?” This is how we ended up with a No. 1 song that isn’t even really exactly a song. I’d venture to say that its ascent to that once-hallowed position — the No. 1 song in America! — felt intuitively correct to exactly no one, including the makers of “Harlem Shake.”

I don’t really pay attention to book rankings (I rely more on recommendations from friends and acquaintances and the occasional strangers):

As for books, we know everything and we know nothing. As any jittery author can confirm, Amazon will now tell you right out in the open where anyone can see exactly where in the vast universe of literature your particular contribution sits. You can watch your sales ranking rise or (more likely) fall in real time, like a stock ticker of public disinterest. On the other hand, The Times publishes 17 separate best-seller lists, from Combined Print and E-Book Fiction to Children’s Middle Grade to Manga. The purpose of all these different lists is to effectively capture the elusive phenomena of consumer choice — the individual decisions that reflect genuine widespread interest.

The Times goes  to cite the popularity of the SyFy movie Sharknado, which took over Twitter the night it aired. But I like this analogy on the ephemeral nature of popularity:

Perhaps the best way to think about the state of popularity is like a kind of quantum element: Both static and in perpetual flux. For example: You can most likely now close the record book on any record that measures how many people did the exact same thing at the exact same time. The movie with the highest box office of all time, adjusted for inflation, is still “Gone With the Wind,” released in 1939.

Not sure I buy this defense of The Fifty Shades of Grey, however:

No, my favorite fact is that, at one point last year, a nurse wrote in the comment section of The Times Magazine’s blog to say that patients (male and female) were reading it while hooked up for dialysis. We’ve all seen the readers on the subway or in the airport lounge, but the dialysis patients seemed like the apotheosis of the “50 Shades” phenomenon. Obviously, it would be much better for literature if dialysis patients across America were reading James Salter or Alice Munro. But “Fifty Shades” has been great in a different way: it has created space within everyday culture for stuff that was once the dominion of pornography. Those who accuse “Fifty Shades” of simply being porn are just wrong; in its innocence and its popularity, the book takes power away from porn, creating from the same basic elements something more human, a kind of squeaky-clean dirt, which can thrive even in the least sexy places on earth: the subway platform, the airport or next to a dialysis machine.

I had absolutely no clue on the most popular podcast in America (I rarely listen to podcasts):

“Welcome to Night Vale” is a twice-monthly podcast about a fictional town styled as a half-hour of community news. The show has been described variously as “the news from Lake Wobegon as seen through the eyes of Stephen King,” “NPR from the Twilight Zone,” “ ‘Lake Wobegon’ by David Lynch” and “ ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ as narrated by Rod Serling.” This summer, the show, which is narrated by Cecil Baldwin and written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, became suddenly, immensely, improbably popular, reaching No. 1 on iTunes, where it has remained, ahead of “This American Life” and “WTF With Marc Maron.”

If you’ve got some time, do explore the entire interactive of 16 popular things in culture that The Times profiles.

The New York Times Reviews The Art of Sleeping Alone

The New York Times reviews Sophie Fontanel’s memoir The Art of Sleeping Alone, and it is filled with wonderful, caustic zingers like this:

The first thing to say about “The Art of Sleeping Alone” is that it’s very French. It’s slim, chic and humorless, that is, a sophisticated bagatelle of a volume, filled with detours to exotic locales: the Sahara, Goa in India, the Greek island of Hydra.

It’s also gauzy and episodic and not particularly well written, yet it drifts along on a kind of existential bearnaise of its own secreting. It’s “Bonjour Tristesse” grown bruised, older, warier.

The book appears to be awkward, with a number of non sequiturs:

The opposite of experience is innocence, of course, and in “The Art of Sleeping Alone,” the author often longs to retreat from the adult world into one that can resemble childhood. She wants her life to be “soft and fluffy.” She wishes to be “the girl I’d been years before.”

At night, she hugs her clean pillows as if they were stuffed animals. When she sees a kind father with his children, she thinks, “Who had adored me like that since my parents?”

She takes long lavender milk baths, baths that are no longer just about the “Silkwood”-style scrubbing of the smell of men from her body. “I felt as if some divinity were rejoicing in me,” she writes. “Until then, water had been only a useful element, like the showers, for example, into which I rushed to cleanse myself of a presence after having let myself get caught.”

I am definitely NOT putting this one on my reading list.

E-Books vs. Lattes vs. Cigarettes

A premise in this thoughtful essay by Kaya Genç on the trade-offs between buying coffee or books: What would George Orwell choose: e-books or lattes?

Kaya lives in Istanbul, Turkey where international editions of books and magazine subscriptions are more expensive than the digital counterparts. Upgrading to an e-book reader last year, there are lamentations of this sort:

In the good, old, and expensive days of literary shopping I would choose books from the shelves, walk to the counter, pay in cash, and head to a coffee shop with my purchases — the favorite ritual of my teenage years. I would open the first book’s cover, accompanied by a cigarette and a cup of strong Turkish coffee. These would always be very physical experiences: I remember the crinkling pages, the waft of the smoke, the oils of the coffee. Afterward my hands smelled of nicotine; my mind hungered for more books.

Lately, however, this ritual has all but disappeared from my life. My reading materials have been thoroughly digitized. I have lost touch with both the printed book and the banknote. In the long chronicle of my reading habits I am currently living through the age of the .EPUB file and the plastic card. It is a chilly period, I must admit, a dark age, and at times it makes me yearn for the good old days of my undergraduate life. 

Citing Orwell’s Books v. Cigarettes essay, who pinpointed his spending habits on books vs. cigarettes:

To fully estimate his reading expenses he added to the sum the cost of newspapers and periodicals. Orwell typically read two daily papers, an evening paper, two Sunday papers, a weekly magazine, and “one or two” monthly magazines. He added these and the cost of his library subscriptions. In the end he concluded that his “total reading expenses over the past fifteen years have been in the neighbourhood of £25 a year.”

In contrast, he had spent £40 a year on cigarettes. His reading habit was cheaper than his smoking one. The workers had had little reason to complain about the cost of books, he decided. If they were not reading literature it was probably because they found books boring — not because they couldn’t afford them.

In the similar vein, Kaya calculates how much money he spends on coffee vs. e-books:

My e-reading expenditures, then, cost me around $385 — less than my coffee expenditures for the same period, which were in the neighborhood of $1,800. My e-reading habit thus costs only a fifth of my drinking one (maybe a little more when I’m not working on a novel). For every dollar I spent on the likes of Tolstoy I spent four on coffee beans.   

An exercise for the reader: do you spend more on coffee or books/e-books? I will update this post when I finish my own calculations for the year 2013…

A Bookish Meditation

I love this short piece written by Gaby Gulo titled “Dear Reader.” In it, if I am interpreting correctly, she anthropomorphizes what’s it like for a book to be neglected, passed over, ignored:

I am a book. Not a poem on a single sheet, not a sheaf of notes, not a paperclipped pile of papers. I am a book.

I am a book with writing, still being written. I have been glanced at, passed over, picked up. I have been many books for many people.

I was the book you didn’t pick up. My cover was too tattered, the font old-fashioned. My hardbound pages were too thick for sand and salt. You picked a paperback instead.

I was the book you picked up but never opened. You saw me on a strange bookshelf, touched me on a whim. You thought my jacket interesting, but other things came along and you forgot I was interesting too, once.

I was the book you opened but never read. I was gifted to you, and you obliged the giver by hastily flipping through a few pages. My words were unfamiliar, my sentences complex. Politeness only goes so far.

I was the book you read partway. You stuck bits of paper, receipts, coffee-stained napkins in my pages to mark your place when you returned. You didn’t. You picked apart my paragraphs with close readings and left me smudged with pencil.

And then the transition, short but poignant, which hits directly in the gut:

Then you. You stroked my spine with curiosity, traced the letters of my title with callused fingers. You picked me up, opened me, read me slowly and carefully. You brushed away the bits of paper, rubbed out the smudges. You lingered over my lines and marked them only with your fingertips. My stories and stanzas were enough to keep you warm.

You carried me with your hands, fell asleep with me on your chest. To you, my rough-cut pages were perfect for turning, my worn cover comforting. You read me chapter by chapter, found shades of meaning in my white spaces. You savored the writing in my beginning and middle, appreciated the blank pages of my end.

Beautiful, poetic writing.