The Future of books and copyright

View of the Interior of the Finishing Room, in Jacob Abbott, 'The Harper's Establishment, or How the Story Books Are Made'

This past weekend, just before the hurricane, I attended In Re Books, a conference about law and the future of the book convened by James Grimmelmann at the New York Law School. Playing the role of Luddite intruder among the futurologists, I gave a talk about the hazard that digitization may pose to research and preservation. Though there were a few librarians, leaders of nonprofits, and even writers present, most of my fellow conference attendees were lawyers who specialize in copyright, and I discovered that copyright lawyers see the world rather differently than do the writer-editor types with whom I usually rub shoulders. They don’t expect publishing as I know it to be around much longer, for one thing. I thought I’d try to write up my impressions of the time I spent in their company. Please keep in mind that I’m not a lawyer myself. I’m just a visitor who went to the fair.

A specter was haunting the conference: the ghost of the settlement that Google Books tried to make with the Authors Guild several years ago. That settlement, slain by Judge Denny Chin in late 2011, had attempted to obtain digital rights to what are known as orphan works, books that are protected by copyright even though the author or publisher who holds the copyright can no longer be found. The settlement had proposed to set up a collective licensing system that would charge for digital access to all books under copyright, parented and ophaned. Proceeds from orphan works, it was suggested, might be shared with findable authors, if no actual rightsholder could be found and if anything was left over after the rights management organization was done paying for itself. The proposal was far from perfect. Why should Google get to sell orphan works and nobody else? Why should the profits from orphan works go to people who didn’t write them? It turns out that the death of the agreement is not much lamented by the copyright lawyers. When Minda Zeitlin, president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, asked, “Is there anyone better to represent dead and unfindable authors than living and findable ones?” the retort from Pamela Samuelson, a copyright law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was sharp: “I’m a better representative of an author like me,” Samuelson said, her implication being that an academic author aims in publishing to further knowledge and build a reputation, not make money. Roy Kaufman, who works at the Copyright Clearance Center, a collective licensing agency founded in 1978 in response to the disruptive technology known as the photocopier, was at pains to distinguish his employer’s system from the one advanced by Google Books and the Authors Guild. The Copyright Clearance Center is opt-in and nonexclusive, he assured the audience. His message was studiously non-threatening: mass digitization could involve rightsholders. Maybe it could take the form of collective licenses arranged between social-media networks and publishers. Facebook, for example, could pay the New York Times for articles and photos that its users posted.

Kaufman’s support for collective licensing, however cautious, was atypical. Most at the conference were against it. Samuelson thought it inadvisable in general, as did Matthew Sag, of Loyola University Chicago, who justified his dislike by pointing to the failures and subsequent reboots of a compulsory licensing system recently set up in the United States for the webcasting of music.

What, if anything, will take the ghost’s place? At the conference, a leading contender was the idea that fair use might solve the orphan works problem—an idea recently advanced by Jennifer Urban of the University of California at Berkely. Fair use, as I wrote in a review-essay for The Nation earlier this year, is an exception to copyright written into American law in 1976. It’s because of fair use that a reviewer doesn’t need to ask permission before he quotes from a book, and it’s because of fair use that an Obama campaign commercial can quote a Romney speech, or vice versa, without paying for it. In the last few years, courts have been more and more generous in how they define fair use, perhaps because Congress seems so unlikely to help sort out the tangles in copyright. In a recent case between the Authors Guild and a digital books repository called Hathi Trust, for example, a court found that three of the four things that Hathi wanted to do with digital texts were fair use: data-mining, indexing, and providing access to the blind. America’s 1976 copyright law specifies four factors to consider in determining fair use—the nature and purpose of the new use, the nature and purpose of the original work, the amount taken, and the impact on the original creator’s income—but in the last couple of decades, judges have focused on whether a new use is “transformative” of the old content it borrows from. Whatever purpose Thomas Pynchon had in mind when he wrote Gravity’s Rainbow, for example, he probably didn’t imagine computerized search of his novel along with a myriad of others in order to find patterns of word usage. That’s a completely new use, a transformation of the purpose of his words unlikely to interfere with the money he expected to make from his novel, so the judge in the Hathi Trust case found it fair.

Sag and Samuelson favored Urban’s idea, which was also mentioned by Doron Weber of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which funds the Digital Public Library of America. Since I hadn’t read Urban’s paper, I asked Sag what kind of transformation lay behind her deployment of fair use. There wasn’t any, he explained, to my surprise, and now that I look at the paper, I see what he means. Urban thinks libraries and universities should be able to provide digital facsimiles for their patrons to read—exactly the same use for which the books were originally published. She also frankly admits to wanting the right to reproduce entire works, not just samples or snippets of them. But she argues that such use would be fair nonetheless, based on the four factors conventional in fair-use analysis. She maintains that libraries and universities are nonprofit institutions, who would be offering access to the texts as a noncommercial service for such public-spirited purposes as research and preservation. (For this part of her argument to hold water, would a university library need to open itself to the public in a general way? Right now the services of a university library, however worthy, are for the most part bestowed only on its own students and faculty, and their character is not purely altruistic.) And she argues that the orphanhood of an orphaned work is more important than previous analysts have seen: “Orphan works,” she writes,

represent a clear market failure: there is no realistic possibility of completing a rights clearance transaction, no matter how high the costs of that transaction, because one party to the transaction is missing.

Therefore market harm, the fourth factor of fair-use analysis, is nugatory, in Urban’s opinion. The trouble with her argument here, I think, is that it’s impossible to know whether a so-called orphan work is really an orphan or merely a work whose parents haven’t shown up yet. If the parents do exist, the market harm to them is real, and it would be as wrong for a court to give the value of their work to Urban’s university library as to give it to Google or a third-party author. Urban seems to be transferring the copyright rather than carving out an exception to it, and I’m afraid that only Congress, in its capacity as the sovereign power of the United States, has the authority to dispose of someone else’s copyright, in an act of eminent domain. Without any claim of a transformation, it seems unlikely to me that Urban will convince a court to define fair use so broadly that it includes reproducing whole works for much the same purpose that they were originally published. But this is just my opinion. The copyright lawyers seem excited by her idea, and as yet no one knows how far it will go. It’s up to the courts. As Jule Sigal, of Microsoft, noted in his presentation, the orphan-works problem has passed through the Age of Legislation (2005-2008) and the Age of Class Action (2008-2011), and we are now living in the Age of Litigation.

The other big new idea at the conference was that the first-sale doctrine might be extended to e-books. That sentence will sound like gibberish to the uninitiated, so let me back up and explain. The first-sale doctrine is a legal concept that limits the control that copyright affords. Specifically, it limits copyright control to the period before an item under copyright is first sold. Once you buy an ink-on-paper book, for example, you’re free to re-sell the book on Ebay at a fraction of the cost. Or give it to your boyfriend. Or take an X-acto blade to it and confuse people by calling the result art. You don’t have the right to sell new copies of the book, but you’re free to do almost anything else you like with the specific copy of the book that you bought. Without the first-sale doctrine, used bookstores would be in constant peril of lawsuits.

Two speakers at the conference told the story of Bobbs-Merrill v. Straus, the 1908 case that established the first-sale doctrine. On the copyright page of the novel The Castaway, the publisher Bobbs-Merrill set the retail price at one dollar and threatened to sue discounters for breach of copyright. Macy’s sold the book for eighty-nine cents anyway, triggering a lawsuit, and the court ruled that copyright afforded Bobbs-Merrill control over the book’s price only up to the moment when Bobbs-Merrill, as a wholesaler, sold copies to Macy’s, which then became free to set whatever retail price it wanted. Ariel Katz, of the University of Toronto, noted that the story is usually told as if the case involved an attempt at what’s known as “vertical” price-fixing—that is, an attempt by a wholesaler to fix the prices charged by independent retailers further down the supply chain. But Katz maintains that it was actually a story of “horizontal” price-fixing—that is, an attempt at collusion in price-fixing by companies that are supposed to be in competition with one another, wholesalers in collusion with wholesalers, and retailers with retailers. The Straus brothers who ran the Macy’s department store were “retail innovators,” Katz explained, who sold a wide variety of goods, including books, at steep discounts, thereby angering publishers and traditional booksellers. The members of the American Publishers Association publicly swore to refuse to supply retailers who discounted the retail price of books, and the American Booksellers Association publicly swore to boycott any publishers who didn’t toe the American Publishers Association’s line. It was the Straus brothers who first went to court, accusing the publishers and booksellers of antitrust violations, but the outcome of this first case was ambiguous: the court ruled that publishers could only set the prices of books that were under copyright. It wasn’t until the 1908 case that the court limited price-setting even of copyrighted books to the period before their first sale.

(As Katz pointed out, it isn’t obvious why publishers and booksellers should have been willing to collude in fixing prices, and he proposed an economic explanation that I wasn’t quite able to follow. He suggested that the price-fixing was an attempt to solve a challenge first discovered by Ronald Coase: if you sell a durable good and you’re a monopolist, you soon find that your monopoly isn’t as profitable to you as you’d like it to be, because you’re in competition with yourself—that is, you’re in competition with all the durable goods you’ve already sold, which suppress demand. The only way to keep prices from falling is to convince consumers that you’ll never let them fall. Katz argues that the limit to booksellers’ shelf space helped publishers make credible their promise never to lower prices, and that in the digital world, where shelf space is unlimited, no similar promise will be as credible. He ran out of time before explaining in detail how this mechanism would work, and as I say, I didn’t quite follow. I also wasn’t quite certain that books qualify as durable goods. Most people, once they’ve read a book, prefer to read a new one instead of re-reading the one they just finished, a fact that suggests that books are more like loaves of bread than refrigerators. But I may be missing something.)

Aaron Perzanowski, of Wayne State University, framed the story of Bobbs-Merrill v. Straus in the context of a common-law tradition of rights exhaustion—the word exhaustion here having the sense of a thing coming to its natural end. In Perzanowski’s opinion, the right to control price is not the only aspect of copyright that expires when an item under copyright is sold. The owner of a work has purchased the use and enjoyment of it, Perzanowski argued, including perhaps the rights to reproduce the work and to make derivative works. Perzanowski made explicit a further leap that remained mostly implicit in Katz’s talk: Shouldn’t the first-sale doctrine apply to e-books, too? As a contractual matter, e-books are rarely sold, in order to prevent exactly this eventuality. In the fine print, it transpires that what distributors purchase from publishers, and what readers purchase from distributors, are mere licenses. But if courts were to recognize readers of e-books as owners, the courts could grant readers the right to re-sell and a limited right to reproduce what they had purchased. Jonathan Band, of Policy Bandwidth, in his assessment of recent legal victories won by university libraries on the strength of fair-use arguments, noted that he saw the first-sale doctrine as likely to be important in future disputes over digital rights. Libraries, he said, felt that they had already purchased the books in their collection and ought to be able to convey them digitally to their patrons.

Extending the first-sale doctrine to e-books might make libraries happy, but it would horrify publishers. Right now, only two of the six largest American publishers allow libraries to lend all of their e-books, and one of those two sells licenses that expire after twenty-six check-outs. Librarians sometimes become quite indignant over the limitations and refusals. “Are publishers ethically justified in not selling to libraries?” one asked at the conference. A recent Berkman Center report, E-Books in Libraries, offered some insight into publishers’ reluctance:

Many publishers believe that the online medium does not offer the same market segmentation between book consumers (i.e., people who purchase books from a retailer) and library patrons (i.e., people who check out books from a public library) that the physical medium affords.

When was the last time you checked out a printed book from the library? My own impression is that gainfully employed adults rather rarely do. (At least for pleasure reading. Research is a different beast.) Maybe they prefer to buy their own books for the sake of convenience, which ready spending money enables them to afford. Or maybe it’s to signal their economic fitness to romantic partners, or to broadcast their social status more generally. But whatever the reason, the fact is that publishers don’t sacrifice many potential sales when they sell printed books to libraries, because library patrons by and large aren’t the sort who purchase copies of books for themselves. The case seems to be different with e-books, though, especially if patrons are able to check them out from home. E-book consumers signal their economic status by reading off of an I-pad XII instead of a Kindle Écru; the particular e-book that they’re reading is invisible to the person on the other side of the subway car, so it might as well be a free one from the library. That means that e-book sales to libraries cannibalize sales to individual consumers. Publishers have tried charging libraries higher prices for e-books. They’ve tried introducing technologically unnecessary “friction,” such as a ban on simultaneous loans of a title, or a requirement that library patrons come in person to the library to load their reading devices. The friction frustrates library patrons and enrages librarians, and even so, it hasn’t been substantial enough to reassure the publishers who are abstaining from the library market altogether. If the future of reading is digital, the market-segmentation problem raises a serious question about the mission of libraries. In his remarks at the conference, the writer James Gleick, a member of the Authors Guild who helped to negotiate its late settlement with Google Books, said that he doubted that every lending library needed to be universal and free, and that he wished the Digital Public Library of America, which is still in its planning stages, were trying to build into its structure a way for borrowers to pay for texts under copyright. The challenge of bringing e-books into public libraries turns out to be inextricable from the larger problem of how authors will be paid in the digital age.

I’ll try to report what the lawyers think of that larger problem in a later post.

UPDATE: Part two here.

The Counterpane

Angela Cockayne, Sleeping Sperm Whales: 19 sperm whales made from duvets

This morning you can find me online reading “The Counterpane,” chapter 4 of Moby-Dick. Ishmael wakes up in Queequeg’s arms, is startled to find his bedmate’s hard tomahawk between them, and is reminded of the time his step-mother caught him trying to go up the chimney.

The reading is part of the Moby-Dick Big Read, which invites 135 different readers—including Tilda Swinton, prime minister David Cameron, Chad Harbach, and Andrew Delbanco—to tackle a chapter of Herman Melville’s novel. The project is being organized by the writer Philip Hoare and the artist Angela Cockayne. Hoare is the author of The Whale, which recounts his lifelong, Melville-induced pursuit of the leviathan, and Cockayne, too, takes much inspiration from Melville’s novel (the photo above is of her work Sleeping Sperm Whales).

I feel very honored to take part. The Guardian notes that other readers include Benedict Cumberbarch, Will Self, and David Attenborough; the New York Times reports that John Waters and Stephen Fry are involved; and the Provincetown Wicked Local adds the names Fiona Shaw, Cerys Matthews, and Nathaniel Philbrick.

“Melville’s Secrets”

Frontispiece to Piranesi's Carceri, Steedman Exhibit, St. Louis Public Library

My essay “Melville’s Secrets” will be published in the September issue of Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies. A subscription to the journal is sent to all members of the Melville Society, so join now (you can use Paypal and do it all online), if you’d like a copy. The essay is a mild revision of the Walter Harding lecture that I gave at SUNY Geneseo in September 2010.

Emerson on Occupy Wall Street

It is a sign of our times, conspicuous to the coarsest observer, that many intelligent and religious persons withdraw themselves from the common labors and competitions of the market and the caucus, and betake themselves to a certain solitary and critical way of living, from which no solid fruit has yet appeared to justify their separation. They hold themselves aloof: they feel the disproportion between their faculties and the work offered them, and they prefer to ramble in the country and perish of ennui, to the degradation of such charities and such ambitions as the city can propose to them. They are striking work, and crying out for somewhat worthy to do! . . .

Society, to be sure, does not like this very well; it saith, Whoso goes to walk alone, accuses the whole world; he declareth all to be unfit to be his companions; it is very uncivil, nay, insulting; Society will retaliate. Meantime, this retirement does not proceed from any whim on the part of these separators; but if any one will take pains to talk with them, he will find that this part is chosen both from temperament and from principle; with some unwillingness, too, and as a choice of the less of two evils; for these persons are not by nature melancholy, sour, and unsocial,—they are not stockish or brute,—but joyous; susceptible, affectionate; they have even more than others a great wish to be loved. . . .

These exacting children advertise us of our wants. There is no compliment, no smooth speech with them; they pay you only this one compliment, of insatiable expectation; they aspire, they severely exact, and if they only stand fast in this watchtower, and persist in demanding unto the end, and without end, then are they terrible friends, whereof poet and priest cannot choose but stand in awe; and what if they eat clouds, and drink wind, they have not been without service to the race of man.

From “The Transcendentalist, a Lecture Read at the Masonic Temple, Boston, January, 1842.”

What novelists do

Diderot defends what novelists do, in his essay "In Praise of Richardson":

You accuse Richardson of boring passages! You must have forgotten how much it costs in efforts, attentions, moves to make the smallest undertaking succeed, to end a lawsuit, to conclude a marriage, to bring off a reconciliation. Think what you like of these details; but I'm going to find them interesting if they're true, if they bring out passions, if they show people's characters.

They're commonplace, you say; they're what one sees every day! You're mistaken; they're what takes place in front of your eyes every day that you never see. Be careful; you're putting the greatest poets in the dock, under Richardson's name. A hundred times you've seen the sun set and the stars rise; you've heard the countryside echo with song breaking forth from birds; but who among you has felt that it was the noise of the day that rendered the silence of the night so touching? All right, well, there are moral phenomena that exist for you the same way physical phenomena do: outbreaks of the passions have often reached your ears; but you are very far from knowing all that there is in the way of secrets in their tones and in their expressions. There's not a single one that doesn't have its own physiognomy; all these physiognomies appear in succession on a face, without its ceasing to be the same; and the art of the great poet and of the great painter is to show you a fugitive circumstance that had escaped your notice.

Sybille Bedford centenary reading

In honor of Sybille Bedford’s centenary, I’ll be one of several writers and editors reading from her work at the Paris Review offices at 62 White Street in Manhattan tomorrow night, Thursday, March 24, at 6:30pm. Free and open to the public, if you RSVP.

If you aren’t already a fan of Bedford’s, please check out the appreciations of her at the Paris Review Daily by Brenda Wineapple and Lisa Cohen.

Tea and antipathy in novels about mild-mannered clerics

If a thing is weighing on one’s mind—a topic, say, like 18th-century tea smuggling or political paranoia—one tends to find it even when one isn’t looking for it. While reading novels, for example.

Americans were far from being the only people in the eighteenth century who smuggled tea. In fact, the ratio between the tax on East India Company tea and its underlying price was so high that it eventually became a classic example in economics of the way that overburdensome regulation may encourage illegality, and awareness of the problem seems to have spilled over from economics into literature quite early on. While researching “Tea and Antipathy,” I happened to read John Galt’s Annals of the Parish (1821), a charming novel that Galt himself liked to think of as a “local theoretical history.” The book is written in the voice of Reverend Micah Balwhidder, a Presbyterian minister, recently retired, who has decided to set down an account of his life in the Scottish parish of Dalmailing. Each year gets its own chapter, in which Reverend Balwhidder, with a guileless lack of self-awareness, summarizes the doings in Dalmailing, spiritual and nonspiritual. In 1761, the most remarkable thing in Dalmailing was the smuggling of tea and hard liquor:

It was in this year that the great smuggling trade corrupted all the west coast . . . . The tea was going like the chaff, the brandy like well-water, and the wastrie of all things was terrible. There was nothing minded but the riding of cadgers [sellers] by day, and excisemen by night—and battles between the smugglers and King’s men, both by sea and land. . . . I did all that was in the power of nature to keep my people from the contagion; I preached sixteen times from the text, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. I visited and I exhorted; I warned and I prophesied; I told them, that, although the money came in like slate stones, it would go like the snow off the dyke. But for all I could do, the evil got in among us. . . .

Indeed, a year later, in 1762, the evil has made its way into Reverend Balwhidder’s own home, in part on account of the charitable interest he takes in an indigent widow, Mrs. Malcolm, who has begun selling tea. “I lost some of my dislike to the tea,” the minister admits.

It did no harm to the head of the drinkers, which was not always the case with the possets that were in fashion before . . . ; so, both for its temperance, and on account of Mrs Malcolm’s sale, I refrained from the November in this year to preach against tea.

By 1778, when the rage for smuggling returns, Rev. Balwhidder is not above chuckling over the story of a woman who has hidden a stash of smuggled tea in her mattress ticking and lies on top of it, feigning to a customs officer that it’s her deathbed. Loosened from strict virtue by time and his affections, the reverend even goes so far as to observe, “Of all the manifold ills in the train of smuggling, surely the excisemen are the worst.”

Not long after, while reading Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), I unexpectedly came across some 18th-century political paranoia—in particular, the variety known as the 18th-century Commonwealthman tradition. In chapter 19, the Vicar, Dr. Primrose, is invited to dine at the home of Wilkinson, a man so interested in politics that he reads six newspapers, seventeen magazines, and two reviews. Wilkinson complains that George III hasn’t let himself be managed the way a king ought to let himself be managed:

I don’t think there has been a sufficient number of advisers: he should advise with every person willing to give him advice, and then we should have things done in anotherguess manner.

When the Vicar protests that such management would be meddling, a lady calls him “sordid” and indignantly apostrophizes “Liberty, that sacred gift of heaven!” Wilkinson, too, takes offense: “Can it be possible . . . that there should be any found at present advocates for slavery? Any who are for meanly giving up the privileges of Britons?”

This was the lingo of the 18th-century Commonwealthman, which Goldsmith disliked, and the Vicar—or Goldsmith, in the Vicar’s voice—proceeds to dress Wilkinson down. The way he does so is rather interesting to an observer in 21st-century America, where income inequality is higher than it has ever been. The Vicar argues that the antimonarchical rhetoric of people like Wilkinson is obfuscatory piffle served up by rich oligarchs, who resent the king’s power as an interference with theirs—as interference with the manipulation by the wealthy of the poor and the oppression by the wealthy of the middle class:

It is the interest of the great . . . to diminish kingly power as much as possible; because whatever they take from that is naturally restored to themselves; and all they have to do in the state, is to undermine the single tyrant, by which they resume their primaeval authority. Now, the state may be so circumstanced, or its laws may be so disposed, or its men of opulence so minded, as all to conspire in carrying on this business of undermining monarchy. For . . . if the circumstances of our state be such, as to favour the accumulation of wealth, and make the opulent still more rich, this will encrease their ambition. . . . Now the possessor of accumulated wealth, when furnished with the necessaries and pleasures of life, has no other method to employ the superfluity of his fortune but in purchasing power. That is, differently speaking, in making dependants, by purchasing the liberty of the needy or the venal . . . the rabble of mankind, whose souls and whose education are adapted to servitude. . . . But there must still be a large number of the people without the sphere of the opulent man’s influence. . . . In this middle order of mankind are generally to be found all the arts, wisdom, and virtues of society. This order alone is known to be the true preserver of freedom, and may be called the People. Now it may happen that this middle order of mankind may lose all its influence in a state, and its voice be in a manner drowned in that of the rabble: . . . In such a state, . . . all that the middle order has left, is to preserve the prerogative and privileges of the one principal governor with the most sacred circumspection. For he divides the power of the rich, and calls off the great from falling with tenfold weight on the middle order placed beneath them.

A strong central government, the Vicar insists, is the middle class’s safest ally. The rich demonize such a government as tyrannical, because no other force in society is capable of standing up to wealth. Should the rich succeed in fooling even the middle class into distrust of government, the result will be a country where “the laws govern the poor, and the rich govern the law.”

The contradiction outrages Wilkinson. Before Wilkinson can throw the Vicar out of the house, though, Wilkinson’s master and mistress come home: it turns out that Wilkinson is really no more than a butler.

Melville’s Secrets: The Walter Harding Lecture, 2010

Yesterday afternoon I gave the 2010 Walter Harding lecture at SUNY Geneseo. The lecture series is named after Walter Harding, who taught for decades in Geneseo and was the preeminent twentieth-century scholar of Henry David Thoreau, and I felt it was a tremendous honor to have been asked. I talked about Melville’s secrets—in particular, about a distorted Platonic myth that I suspect may be present in Moby-Dick. “Ishmael,” I claimed, “might be considered a final, uninvited guest to Plato’s banquet, and his tale a postscript to Diotima’s.”

SUNY Geneseo has already uploaded a video of my talk (perhaps also embedded below, if I’ve coaxed the html sufficiently); a downloadable audio is forthcoming. I’m not going to post a transcript, because I’m hoping to revise the talk into a scholarly paper in the not-too-distant future. To that end, if any of you who heard the talk yesterday or who listen to it online have suggestions, corrections, or comments, please get in touch.

I had a great time at SUNY Geneseo. Many thanks to Marjorie Harding, for the gift that made the lecture series possible; it was an honor to meet the Harding family. I’m very grateful to Geneseo’s English department for their hospitality and great questions. I’m especially grateful to department chair Paul Schacht for his support and guidance, to associate professor Alice Rutkowski for a very kind introduction, and to the college president and English professor Christopher Dahl and his wife Ruth Rowse for a lovely dinner.

Did Melville invent sperm-squeezing?

Once spermaceti, the oil inside the head of a sperm whale, is extracted, it begins to congeal, and in “A Squeeze of the Hand,” the 94th chapter of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville claims that sailors used to be put to work rehomogenizing the oil by hand:

When the proper time arrived, this same sperm was carefully manipulated ere going to the try-works, of which anon.

It had cooled and crystallized to such a degree, that when, with several others, I sat down before a large Constantine’s bath of it, I found it strangely concreted into lumps, here and there rolling about in the liquid part. It was our business to squeeze these lumps back into fluid. A sweet and unctuous duty!

Melville goes on to describe an ecstatic experience that overcame his narrator while engaged in sperm squeezing; that ecstasy has attracted much commentary and speculation about its possible sexual and psychological significance. The meanings that Melville invests in the task are clearly a contribution of his own. Much of the whaling practice described in the novel, though, is non-fiction. Was sperm-squeezing?

When I reviewed Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan for the New Yorker in 2007, I concluded that it wasn’t, but the case is a tricky one, so here’s a presentation of the evidence.

Dolin himself was agnostic, and merely quoted Melville’s description of “the experience of squeezing the lumps out of congealed spermaceti” (Dolin, p. 267). A number of nineteenth-century whaling narratives do confirm that spermaceti looks, feels, and behaves as Melville describes, though prior to the publication of Moby-Dick, none that I know of describes hands-on delumping.

In Incidents of a Whaling Voyage (1841), for example, Francis Allyn Olmsted writes:

The case [the head of the whale] is surrounded by a thick wall of a white, gristly substance, termed by the whalers “white horse;” the cavity is lined with a yellowish fat, and is filled with oil of a very superior quality, which, when warm, is perfectly limpid, but concretes in beautiful white masses, if allowed to become cold, or as it drips upon the water. (p. 65)

Olmsted goes on to say that “The head oil and fat are immediately committed to the try-pots”—cauldrons where the fat is purified by high heat. He makes no mention of physical manipulation.

According to William Scoresby’s Account of the Arctic Regions (1820), head oil wasn’t passed through try-pots before it was stored: “The head-matter congeals when it is cold; it is put into casks in its crude state, and refined on shore at the conclusion of the voyage” (vol. 2, pp. 534-35). In Whaling and Fishing, published in 1856, Charles Nordhoff also describes storing case oil immediately, without boiling it first in try-pots:

Meantime the case was opened; a man being placed in the large opening, the pure and beautifully white spermacetti was bailed out with a bucket constructed for that purpose. It is quite fluid when first taken out, but quickly congeals on exposure to air. It is at once placed in new casks, which are duly marked “case.” (p. 127)

Since I haven’t found any accounts before Melville that refer to sperm squeezing and since the episode in the novel is overlaid with such personal psychological significance, it seems possible that Melville invented the practice, which doesn’t on the face of it make much sense. If sperm oil congeals as it cools, then presumably it melts again when heated, so the try-works would render squeezing unnecessary. On the other hand, if the spermaceti is to be stored in barrels without heat purification, squeezing would be in vain, because the lumps would inevitably form again while the oil waited inside the barrels; whalers often spent years at sea. Melville does sometimes invent. In the very next chapter, “The Cassock,” he writes that before the tougher blubber of the whale is sliced up for the try-pots, the slicer dresses himself in the skin of the whale’s penis. As Howard P. Vincent observed in In The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, “the whaling sources give no indication, physiological or otherwise, of the facts of Melville’s chapter” and so “one must assume that it came from memory or from an imagination profoundly Rabelaisian.” Probably the latter.

But there’s at least one piece of evidence vindicating Melville. In Nimrod of the Sea (1874), in a passage that I was first directed to by Wilson Heflin’s Herman Melville’s Whaling Years, William M. Davis does describe sperm squeezing:

On being withdrawn [from the head of whale], the bucket is filled with transparent spermaceti, mixed with the soft, silky integuments, and possessing the odor of the new-drawn milk of our home dairies. With our hands blistered yesterday by the oar, and all on fire to-day by the harsh friction of the handspike, it was luxurious to wade deep in the try-pots filled with this odorous unguent, in order to squeeze and strain out the fibres, which, if allowed to remain, would char with the heat, and darken the oil. No king of earth, even Solomon in all his glory, could command such a bath. I almost fell in love with the touch of my own poor legs, as I stroked the precious ointment from the skin.

One reason to hesitate in accepting this evidence is the date. Since Nimrod began writing his book in 1872, there’s a possibility of contamination—in other words, there’s a possibility that he read Melville’s novel and later remembered Melville’s account as an experience of his own. (For a contemporary example, consider Tony Blair, whose account of meeting with the queen incorporates dialogue from Stephen Frears’s movie The Queen, which Blair claims not to have seen.) It argues against contamination that Davis’s account differs somewhat from Melville’s. The purpose of squeezing, Davis writes in the passage above, wasn’t to redissolve lumps but to remove fibers that would darken the oil—a more plausible explanation than Melville’s, though it suggests that if the task was real, Melville failed to understand the point of it and probably didn’t do a very good job. Davis’s reference to Solomon’s bath reminds me of Melville’s reference to Constantine’s, though—hinting at contamination. Maybe Davis did unconsciously turn Melville’s fictional description into a memory of his own and just as unconsciously revised it, to make it more rational. Also worrisome: Try-pots had to reach a very high temperature, and they stayed at that temperature for days while a whale was being processed, so I’m a little skeptical of Davis’s account of wading into the try-pots, which implies significant delay in heating them. Also, even a small amount of moisture in the try-pots was dangerous, because it caused the oil to sputter. Olmsted says the whalers went to great lengths to keep moisture out, making it unlikely that sailors, who perspire, would have been asked to wade into the fluid.

Despite my reservations, I’m inclined for the interim to accept Davis’s testimony and believe that sperm-squeezing was an activity that real whalers engaged in, as well as fictional ones. But I wish there were more evidence on either side. A plea for crowd-sourcing: If anyone knows of another reference to sperm squeezing—especially one published before 1851—I’d love to hear about it.

Glut and deflation

"We are undergoing what they call in California 'a paradigm shift,'" writes Nigel Burwood at Bookride, his brilliant blog about bookselling. "An older more bookish generation is dying off or downsizing," he explains. And as a result, booksellers like Burwood "are being offered far too many books."

I've been wondering about this. I'm a buyer of secondhand books rather than a seller, so I'm not as acutely aware of market vicissitudes, but there is an indicator that I've been curious about. At the used-book search site Abebooks.com, if you aren't ready to buy, you can "Save for later" the books you've found. Since my reach usually exceeds my financial grasp, and since searching for copies of books in and of itself satisfies a certain obsessive-compulsive craving, I often have dozens of books in my "Save for later" list. Over the years, I have learned that the list is not stable. From time to time, either I or Abebooks upgrades software and inadvertently deletes all the titles. Sometimes individual books vanish from the list without explanation, perhaps because a software cookie has expired, but if you notice that such a book is gone, you can easily search for it again. Even less distressingly, if a bookseller goes on vacation, his book remains in your "save for later" list but the price is replaced by the notation "Temporarily unavailable." It comes back of its own accord when the bookseller does.

Excruciatingly, however, the price next to a title in your "Save for later" list is sometimes replaced with the notation "Book sold!" That exclamation point always cuts like salt dashed into a wound. How long did the very good set of all eleven volumes of the Bodley Head Henry James in very good dust jackets remain in my "Save for later" list, priced at $150, without my finding the necessary funds and courage? I do not know, but I remember the day that the numerals disappeared, the title went from clickable blue to unclickable black, and I was forced to concede that "Book" had "sold!"

As recently as a few years ago, I felt such pangs more or less monthly. As much as the pangs pained me, I recognized them as a sign of general economic health and my own good judgment about prices. After all, I put a book in my "Save for later" list because I thought it was the cheapest available copy in good condition of an edition that I wanted. If anybody else wanted the same edition, the copy in my cart was exactly the one they would buy, if they had any sense.

The pangs became less frequent in 2008, with the advent of the Great Recession. Oddly, though, they didn't return with the so-called recovery. In fact, over the past year, almost no books in my cart have been sold out from under me—so few, in fact, that I erroneously concluded that Abebooks must have changed its methodology and must now be silently vanishing sold books from "Save for later" lists, perhaps on the advice of some marketing psychologist who had revealed to the site's managers how traumatic those words and that mark of punctuation were to fragile personalities like mine. But then, a month ago, I was once more stabbed in the heart: "Book sold!" It was a shock. Once I recovered from the particular loss, though, I became perplexed. So Abebooks hadn't changed its methods. That meant that only one book I wanted had been bought by someone else in the course of almost a year.

A number of explanations suggest themselves. First: perhaps there is no economic recovery, not really, at least not among people who buy the sort of books I like. Second: perhaps e-readers, by changing habits, have thinned the ranks of collectors and made physical books a drug on the market, as Burwood has suggested. Third: perhaps it's a sign of deflation. (Number three isn't so much an alternative to number two as an alternative way of thinking of it.) General deflation would be a worldwide economic nightmare, to the extent that I understand it, but it's possible that there might only be deflation in the market for used books. New booksellers, especially online,  constantly vary their prices, but used booksellers usually price their books just once. That practice works well in an era of mild inflation; the real cost of a book drops the longer it sits on the shelf, as a reasonable seller would want it to. But if, because of changing tastes or general economic malaise, the demand for used books is dropping, then most old prices are now too high, and as time goes by, the real value of these books to buyers will fall ever further below the price written on the front flyleaf. But few booksellers are likely to want to endure the tedium of repricing their whole stock.

Deflation would explain why I often nowadays buy books through another feature offered by Abebooks, the "Wants" list. If you enter search criteria for a "Want" and add it to your "Wants" list, Abebooks will email you any new books entered into its database that match. Often the newly added copies are priced substantially lower than the ones currently sitting around, perhaps on account of the factors sketched out above.

To look on the bright side, if the trend persists, I might someday be able to afford a library much ampler and substantial than I ever thought possible. (Where to put it is another question. And if the market for used books collapses altogether, of course, I won't be able to find the books that I will theoretically be able to afford.) Among the drawbacks of this state of affairs, however, is the sense of an era ending. One kind of book that I like to have is a reasonably attractive hardcover scholarly edition of a literary classic; recently, for example, I got a bargain on the second edition of Eugene Vinaver's three-volume Sir Thomas Malory. In that vein, when Jenny Davidson's blog Light Reading alerted me last week to a TLS review of a new edition of the poems of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester, I devoured the review at once, because I don't have an edition of Rochester, and I've never been able to figure out which one to get, if I were to get one. Bad news: the new Wiley-Blackwell edition costs $99, but according to the TLS, the edition you probably want is Harold Love's 1999 Oxford English Texts edition, which costs $350 new, and only about a C-note less used. The price of scholarly hardcovers of classic literary texts has been rising for decades, and in many cases, they're now out of the reach of everyone except research libraries and a few of the academics who specialize in that specific author, if said academics are well funded. Indeed, when columnists at the Chronicle of Higher Education recently recommended that new graduate students "build a personal library," they weren't referring to the purchase of books at all. They were merely advising that grad students store in a software program the titles of articles and books they read, preferably along with a few keywords. (Happily, Penguin often republishes the texts I covet, but they're stripped of much of the scholarly apparatus, and a paperback isn't as durable, nor is it quite the same aesthetic object.)