Book Review: Words for the Taking

Neal Bowers is an accomplished poet, professor and editor. However, it came as a surprise to him when, in the early nineties, he discovered that one of his poems, with very minor changes, had been published under a different title and a different name. He was devastated, confused and angry, but, despite the advice of many of his colleagues, he decided to fight back.

Neal, along with his wife Nancy, decided to pursue the plagiarist and the resulting chase involved a lawyer, a private investigator and a string of shocking discoveries. The conflict itself which lasted over a year, spanned three continents and brought to surface plagiarism of several poets in dozens of periodicals.

As a coup de grace to the entire matter, Neal decided to sit down and write a memoir on the events surrounding the ordeal, A memoir now published by W. W. Norton and Company under the title “Words for the Taking: The Hunt for a Plagiarist

The book itself, at about 140 pages, is a fast and light read. However, it is written skillfully as Neal showcases his mastery of the English language. It’s a very enjoyable and very approachable book, no matter what your knowledge level on plagiarism is.

For those interested in Internet plagiarism, there’s a great deal fascinating in this book.

First, you’ll be excited and somewhat comforted to hear Neal express his complex and confusing emotions surrounding the theft. Those who have been plagiarized will probably find themselves mumbling “me too” almost constantly while reading this book, especially as he describes the sometimes ambivalent response many of his colleagues gave.

Second, it’s interesting to see exactly how radically the Internet has changed everything. Neal’s plagiarist pushed his ill-gotten works on the masses by using a copy of “The Poet’s Market” and several dozen periodicals. Today plagiarists simply publish the works themselves on the Web. Not being limited to snail mail and telephone radically accelerates the process, including theft, discovery and resolution. What took Mr. Bowers a year, now takes only a few days or weeks in most instances.

Finally, it’s fascinating to see the attitudes different people have towards the plagiarist, especially across gender and professional lines. According to Bowers, women generally were more hostile toward the thief where men tried to dissuade him from pursuing the matter and even sympathized with the plagiarist. Also, journalists took a much more clear tone against the plagiarist than did academics and fellow poets (perhaps my journalism background is why I take such a harsh stand) due to the nature of their profession.

The only complaint I had about the book was that, at times, it seemed as if Bowers was trying too hard to explain what poetry means to him and why the theft was significant. To me personally, he was preaching to the choir and I was too eager to see what happened next. However, it’s likely that others will benefit from his explanations and may learn from it.

In the end, it’s probably not a book targeted at individuals like me, but rather those unsure of what to think about plagiarism or, perhaps, even plagiarists themselves. Regardless, it’s a must read for anyone with an interest on the subject.

It definitely gets my approval and I hope to read more of Mr. Bowers work in the future.

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