I just learned that I inadvertently disabled comments a month and a half ago. Sorry about that. I think it’s fixed now.
Over at The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog, I take the Thoreau passages in Shane Carruth’s sci-fi movie Upstream Color very, very seriously.
In the latest issue of Publishers Weekly, there’s another positive early review of my novel Necessary Errors. If you’re a subscriber you can search for it at their site, but otherwise the review is not online at all. Excerpt: “Crain reinvents the novel of the innocent in his well-wrought debut. . . . The novel is full of the kinds of conversations shared by intelligent, earnest young people everywhere; the parallels between their idealism and uncertainty and those of their adopted country are handled with great skill.”
In the 20 May 2013 issue of The Nation, I have a review of Unfair to Genius, a biography by Gary A. Rosen of the early-20th-century musician and litigant Ira B. Arnstein. Arnstein started out as a moderately successful composer and music teacher, but as the music business changed, he lost his footing and in desperation turned to the courts, where he made rather wild claims of plagiarism against his colleagues.
In his end notes, Rosen points the reader to recordings of Arnstein’s songs available on the internet. For example, you can hear “A Mother’s Prayer,” a schmaltzy song that was Arnstein’s first big success, at the Library of Congress. It’s part of a 1913 recording of a medley by the Victor Military Band; Arnstein’s is the first tune in the medley. At Florida Atlantic University’s Judaica Sound Archives, you can hear a 1918 Columbia Gramophone recording of Arnstein’s “Soldiers of Zion,” a Jewish national anthem, as sung by Josef Rosenblatt, a celebrity of the day known as the Jewish Caruso. The Judaica Sound Archives also hosts a 1922 Victor recording of another Jewish tune of Arnstein’s, “V’Shomru.” The conductor at Victor who arranged for the recording, Nathaniel Shilkret, was to become an early victim of Arnstein’s legal attacks.
If you want to judge Arnstein’s cases yourself, head over to the Music Copyright Infringement Resource, hosted by Columbia University and the USC Gould School of Law. There you can listen to the songs on both sides and make up your own mind as to whether, say, Shilkret plagiarized Arnstein, as Arnstein alleged he did (the judge’s 1933 verdict: “there was not sufficient originality in the plaintiff’s eight measures to make it worthwhile for anyone to steal them”). In a case decided in 1936, Arnstein claimed that a CBS music director had taken the gypsy-themed tune “Play, Fiddle, Play” from him; you can listen for yourself to that tune, too, as well as to Arnstein’s supposed original. In Unfair to Genius, Rosen points out that judges of the day applied conflicting rules about how to determine plagiarism in music: there was one standard in Allen v. Walt Disney Productions (1941), and a different one in Carew v. RKO Pictures (1942). The songs fought over in both cases are in the Music Copyright Infringement Resource. As are the songs at issue in Arnstein’s lawsuits against Broadcast Music, Inc. and against Cole Porter. The Cole Porter case is the show-stopper of Rosen’s book; it led to a Second Circuit ruling still used by the courts to determine whether there’s been a copyright infringement. Was a pious song of Arnstein’s degraded into, as Arnstein put it, “a song to a cow,” namely, Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In”?
UPDATE, 6:40pm: At Oxford University Press’s blog, Rosen has compiled a Spotify playlist of fifteen classic American songs that Arnstein claimed had been stolen from him. (Probably better listening than the songs that are indisputably his.)
My novel Necessary Errors, which will come out in August from Penguin, got an early positive review yesterday from Library Journal. The reviewer, Travis Fristoe, calls the plot “compelling,” the “nuance and dialog . . . an observational wonder,” and the book as a whole “a pleasure to navigate with its large, likable cast.” You have to be a subscriber to read the whole review, but some is visible even without a subscription.
In “Playing for All Kinds of Possibilities,” a very fun science article in yesterday’s New York Times, reporter David Dobbs describes how four-year-olds easily beat grown-ups at Blickets, a game invented by child psychologists Alison Gopnik and David Sobel. There seem to have been many versions of Blickets over the years, each designed to ferret out a different nuance of children’s understanding of the world, but in his article Dobbs is describing two that he calls “or” and “and”:
The “or” version is easier: When a blicket is placed atop the machine, it will light the machine up whether placed there by itself or with other pieces. It is either a blicket or it isn’t; it doesn’t depend on the presence of any other object.
In the “and” trial, however, a blicket reveals its blicketness only if both it and another blicket are placed on the machine.
Adults are usually stumped by the “and” version, but it gives children no trouble. Researchers believe that children succeed because they aren’t constrained by “prior biases.” Children don’t have such biases because they simply don’t know much about the world yet, and in their effort to understand, they’re willing to try out all kinds of wild ideas. As they age, they learn that some kinds of hypotheses are less commonly successful than others, and they become less willing to risk belief in these low-probability hypotheses. They grow up to be adults who lose at Blickets. They learn, Dobbs writes, that “‘or’ rules apply far more often in actual life, when a thing’s essence seldom depends on another object’s presence.”
This last claim stuck in my head, and this morning I realized why: I’m not sure it’s true, at least not about a very important category of thing, namely, people. Suppose, instead of playing Blickets with a rectangle, a triangle, and a bridge, we play Lovers with Rilke, Lou, and Gumby. And suppose, instead of placing clay tokens on top of a Blicket Detector, we play the game by leaving our three contestants alone in a room in pairs, to see if they happen to get busy. Rilke + Gumby = nothing. Lou + Gumby = also a blank. But Rilke + Lou = sonnets! Even adults are able to understand that these facts reveal that Rilke and Lou are Lovers, and that Gumby isn’t.
In the psychology experiment, the children were instructed that “the ones that are blickets have blicketness inside,” a somewhat confusing thing to say, given that the property of blicketness is completely fictional and doesn’t correspond to shape, color, weight, or any other physical trait. But adults are able to overcome a similar red herring, in the form of a word for the (also perhaps fictional) essence that qualifies a person as a Lover, namely, love.
As near as I can figure it, any mutually defined, nonhierarchical relationship between people operates in the real world by the same logic as the “and” version of Blickets. You can play Brothers, for example, with Henry James, William James, and William Dean Howells. You can play Rivals with Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Saint Francis of Assisi. You can play Friends with Emerson, Thoreau, and Jefferson Davis. (Note that for all these relationships, we have words for the relevant essence: brotherhood, rivalry, and friendship.)
None of this may matter for Gopnik and Sobel’s conclusion, because it doesn’t alter their finding that children are more willing to try out an unlikely hypothesis about clay triangles than adults are. But I’m not convinced that what children learn when they grow up is that “or” rules apply more often in real life than “and” rules do. It may be that they learn merely that “and” rules tend to be limited to human relationships.
Or it may be that they learn that grown-ups aren’t supposed to think of their toys as living creatures with thoughts and emotions . . .
Over at Slate, I have an essay about the existential pleasures of filing taxes as a gay married couple.