Play It Again, Professor

Brent Lewin for The Chronicle

At a reading in Toronto for his new book, In Praise of Copying, Marcus Boon (reflected in mirror) treated listeners to words from other writers.
October 17, 2010

Marcus Boon gave a reading recently to promote his new book. It took place at Spoonbill & Sugartown, a bookstore in Brooklyn. About 40 or 50 people showed up. But they didn't hear a single word written by Mr. Boon.

Instead, he read from a 1960s sex manual, an Italian cookbook, and Bob Dylan's memoir, among others. He had grabbed those books, more or less at random, from the store's shelves an hour before the event. So why not read from the book he actually wrote? "I didn't see a need to," says Mr. Boon, an associate professor of English at York University, in Toronto. That's because, he says, the same concepts could be found elsewhere, albeit in slightly altered form.

Not coincidentally, that's the case he makes in his book, In Praise of Copying (Harvard University Press). Mr. Boon argues that originality is more complicated than it seems, and that imitation may be the sincerest form of being human. He writes: "I came to recognize that many of the boundaries we have set up between activities we call 'copying' and those we call 'not copying' are false, and that, objectively, phenomena that involve copying are everywhere around us."

He read from the cookbook because recipes aren't protected by copyright law (unless they contain a "substantial literary expression," according to the U.S. Copyright Office). He read from the memoir because of Dylan's liberal borrowings from traditional folk music. And he read from the sex manual because, well, sex is all about reproduction, isn't it?

At one point during the evening, Mr. Boon seemed to be reading from his own book. In fact, he had slipped his dust jacket over a copy of Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), a new book by Lewis Hyde. Mr. Hyde, a professor of creative writing at Kenyon College and author of the much-lauded books The Gift and Trickster Makes This World, touches on many of the same themes as Mr. Boon, extolling "that vast store of unowned ideas, inventions, and works of art we have inherited from the past and continue to enrich."

In Common as Air, Mr. Hyde asserts that many of the bromides regularly spouted regarding creative works—such as "Intellectual property is no different than physical property"—don't stand up under scrutiny. He's on the side of those who believe in a "cultural commons," where intellectual property is less estate and more park. His new book has roots in The Gift, his 1983 classic that's notoriously difficult to summarize but is about, in a sense, artistic sharing.

When informed of Mr. Boon's bookstore stunt, Mr. Hyde seemed amused. He said it reminded him of Jonathan Lethem's 2007 essay "The Ecstasy of Influence," which is composed entirely of other writers' passages. It's not until the end of the essay that Mr. Lethem, whose most recent novel is Chronic City, acknowledges the game and cites the works he's pilfered. In that essay, one of the writers Mr. Lethem leans on most heavily is Mr. Hyde, who finds Mr. Lethem's copying without attribution particularly flattering because "the new speaker identifies with the words enough to join in their articulation."

One of the writers Mr. Lethem mentions as an influence on that essay is David Shields. In March, Mr. Shields's book Reality Hunger (Knopf) was released to praise ("daring," "passionate") and disdain ("boring and frustrating") but not indifference. In the book, Mr. Shields, who is a professor of English at the University of Washington, mixes his own prose with excerpts from other writers, thumbing his nose at MLA style along the way. The 600-plus sections are numbered, and you have to look in an appendix to determine which ones are original and which ones are cut and pasted. Not that those citations are always terribly helpful. For instance: "I'm pretty sure these lines, or something close to these lines, were spoken by Terry Gilliam in an interview, but I can't for the life of me find the source."

Also, Mr. Shields lets us know, he doesn't particularly care.

The book, he has said, grew out of a course packet. In the afterword, he writes that the publisher's lawyers insisted that he include the citations; he would prefer that readers literally cut out those pages. (Dotted lines are included to aid in the scissoring.) Explains Mr. Shields: "Your uncertainty about whose words you've just read is not a bug but a feature."

None of these books offer a defense of plagiarism, exactly, though it's likely all three authors would quibble with the definition of that word. In a chapter titled "Copying as Deception," Mr. Boon attempts to work through his conflicted feelings about plagiarism. He doesn't see it as "an entirely bad thing," but he is "offended by the student's refusal to think." He makes a distinction between those who copy out of laziness and those who do so "out of love."

Reading Mr. Hyde's text out loud may have illustrated Mr. Boon's thesis, but it's not as if Common as Air could be substituted for In Praise of Copying. They're not so much twins as cousins. And it would be hard to confuse Reality Hunger with almost any other book. But all three authors share a discomfort with the way lines are drawn around literature. They would agree that copying isn't pejorative, and that appropriation isn't necessarily a violation. They would ask: Who owns the words?

By the way, that question was lifted from Mr. Shields's book.