Can’t Get Enough of That Wonderful Duff!

Books, wrote Milton in Areopagitica  “are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.” To destroy a book is to destroy thought itself, a crime nearly equal to that of killing a man. A book has a life as “active as that soul was whose progeny they are.” To what extent, though, do the lives of books ever truly separate from the lives of their authors? Don Quixote, argued by some to be the greatest novel ever written, may give us some insights.

Early in Part 1, a curate and a barber purge Don Quixote’s library of the dangerous books that have led him to believe that he was a knight-errant. (It occurs to me that at the time a barber would have also been a surgeon, so why should he not be the one to “cure” Don Quixote by surgically removing the cause of his illness?) Throughout the comical scene of these two passing judgement on books, they show the strength of Milton’s claims. The very idea of destroying “dangerous” books only makes sense if one believes that there is a great potency in them. Further, the books are discussed as if they are people, e.g. “we must condemn him to the fire.” The curate and the barber are reverse of Milton; they recognize the immense power and independent personalities of books, but they conclude that books must be censored where Milton concludes that they must not.

But the curate and the barber do not strictly separate the personality of the books from their authors. By the end of their inquisition, they become weary and lazy. They begin to mix judgments of the books with judgments of the authors: “Let him be kept, both because the author is my very great friend, and in regard of other more heroical and lofty works he hath written.” So the judges are willing to spare some books, not because of their content, but because of their authors. I suspect that this inconsistency is meant to show a flaw of their methods. If the book is dangerous, how can it matter who wrote it? So the curate and the barber are bad judges at best, and, more likely, totally backwards in their thinking. Books really do have a life independent of their authors.

Don Quixote is an attractive subject for this sort of study for another reason. Supposedly, Don Quixote, Part 1 was published with no intent of their being a second part. The story is complete and deeply satisfying, with no need for further adventures. However, Cervantes wrote in a time without intellectual property law. The character of Don Quixote was so popular, that other authors wrote their own adventures for the man of La Mancha. (The same thing, incidentally, happened with the character Sherlock Holmes.) Cervantes, unhappy to see his character appearing in other writers’ works, published Part 2 as the definitive final adventure of Don Quixote.

Proponents of strong intellectual property law claim that without it, inventors will not invent and writers will not write. But Cervantes continued to write, even after his character was employed elsewhere. Charles Dickens was not protected by IP law, but he still made a living. Once an idea is out in the world, it has its own life. How can the author expect to keep that life reined in?

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Beer of the week: Duff Beer – Speaking of intellectual property, the makers of this beer have had to spend a lot of time in court fighting for the right to use the name and logo of Homer Simpson’s drink of choice. Surely an American company that tried this would lose the fight, but this beer is German, and Europeans love sticking it to America almost as much as they love protected place names. The beer itself probably isn’t too different from what the Simpsons creators had in mind. It really is a very ordinary mass-produced beer. The only hint that this is really a cheap German lager instead of a cheap American lager is that there is no hint of corn or rice in the flavor and there is a little bit of hoppy dryness in the finish, maybe even a touch of grass. I overpaid just because of the name, but if this were priced the same as beers of similar quality, I could definitely see my way to imitating Homer and drinking a lot of it.

Reading of the week: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – The curate and the barber put together a mock auto-da-fé for the dangerous books in Don Quixote’s library. The scene is very comical. I particularly like when the curate laughs at the naive old woman who suggests blessing the library with holy water, only to replace blessing-with-water with purging-by-fire.

Question of the week: If a book has a life of its own, isn’t strong IP law a form of slavery? Shouldn’t ideas be free to work wherever they might be of most use?

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