This week, rocker Patti Smith won the National Book Award for her memoir Just Kids. (First of all, yay.) In her acceptance speech, Smith said:
"I dreamed of having a book of my own, of writing one that I could put on a shelf. There is nothing more beautiful than the book, the paper, the font, the cloth. Please, no matter how we advance technologically, please don’t abandon the book. There is nothing in our material world more beautiful than the book."Her comments have been endlessly retweeted as part of the ongoing discussion of the place of eBooks in contemporary literature. But they struck me as being more significant than that. They represent an artist calling on all of us, as we rush into a future that is as uncertain as it is inevitable, to always treat words with reverence and respect.
George W. Bush has a memoir out, too. As reported by the Huffington Post, Bush lifted large portions of the book--including his own direct quotes--verbatim from other memoirs and accounts of his administration. Some of Bush's sources even included books whose accuracy the White House had dismissed when they were published.
Like many presidents writing their autobiographies, Bush employed a ghostwriter, a former Yale classmate of his daughter Barbara who had gone on to become a favored White House speechwriter. Christopher Michel was a college sophomore when Bush took office and the president apparently treated this project like weekend homework. Instead of sitting down for extensive interviews with Michel, it seems Bush charged him to go out there and figure out what happened for himself and when he was done the president would sign off on it. Where else could Michel go except to Bob Woodward and Tommy Franks? And why interview them when you can just copy their words from a book?
In the meantime, and not incidentally, an anonymous individual who ghostwrites college term papers for a fee wrote a tell-all over at The Chronicle Review. It's a chilling if sadly unsurprising read for anyone who trusts in the sanctity and integrity of work and learning.
Last year I wrote about an anecdote in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest that is presented in the book as original but was, in fact, cut-and-pasted from an old joke that was surely being passed around by hand and email at the time Wallace was writing. As I said then, I don't consider it plagiarism--the anecdote is eventually revealed to be part of an insurance scam and I can accept that we are to assume that the character is the plagiarist (although none of this is explicitly stated). Still I thought it was problematic enough to warrant a discussion. When I brought it up over at the Infinite Summer web site, however, I was surprised at the number of people, especially young people, who saw nothing at all wrong with copying something off the internet and presenting it as one's own work.
(Indeed almost anyone who has written for the internet has had the experience of stumbling across his own writing with another person's byline on it. Among my own work, the piece that has been most appropriated is, for some reason, this one.)
All of which is to say that cynicism over the written word has been growing for a long time, but it's especially disheartening to discover, all politics aside, that a former president of the United States approaches his own account of one of the most important periods in American history like an overdue assignment at an offshore correspondence school.
And so in a week that also brought news of another misadventure in commercial cynicism, the "James Frey Fiction Factory," Smith's suggestion that words are not commodities, that writing is art and that the written word should be treated with respect by both readers and authors, was particularly welcome. One day I hope a history professor holds both the Bush book and the Smith book in front of his class and says, "One of these is an account of wartime America by the most powerful man in the world. The other is the story of a naive young woman coming of age in punk-era New York. Now guess which one is actually important."