Book Review: Digital Barbarism


When I review books, or any other product, I feel that it is my duty to convey whether the book is worth the time and money to read. Since it is possible, maybe even easier, to enjoy and be provoked by a book that you have diverging opinions with, I would like to try and keep my opinions on copyright out of the work.

However, as was with the case with Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur, the benefit of the book is greatly hindered by clearly erroneous and/or misguided arguments. As such, it is important to address both the book itself and the merits of the argument.

But, as I review Mark Helprin’s book Digital Barbarism, I am not going to turn my review into an assault on his positions. Many others, far more qualified than I, have done so already including the editors at Copysense and even Lawrence Lessig himself via his wiki.

So the goal of this review is not to refute or support Helprin, but to let you know whether or not you want to run to your bookstore and pick up a copy of the book.

Spoiler Alert: You won’t.

First Impressions


In the opening pages of the book, Helprin paints himself as a sympathetic character. We learn that the book is a response to a deluge of criticism that befell him after he penned a New York Times editorial about copyright entitled “A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright?“, which became the target for those wanting to argue against perpetual copyright.

But to hear Helprin tell the story, it was, in large part, a misunderstanding. The headline being the editor’s (poor) decision and much of the talk about perpetual copyright being a misunderstanding of his intentions.

As an author, I can understand and appreciate this. I know well what it is like to have the mob, with torches lit, come to your door over a misunderstanding. However, unlike Helprin, I realized that much of the fault was my own. After all, especially when writing in a journalistic setting, it is the writer’s responsibility to write so that they can not be misunderstood. Where I learned from my mistakes and moved on, Helprin wrote a book.

Helprin, however, walked into his column with a unique combination of arrogance and ignorance. When describing the decision to write on copyright, he says he asked himself, “Who thinks about copyrights other than the few who hold them?” and that his goal was to pick a topic so dull as to not attract any attention.

Not only does this show a great misrepresentation of the law, especially since nearly every human produces copyrightable works, but also of the current climate on the Web, where copyright is one of the most controversial topics. It was as if Helprin had slept through the entire Napster era, the 35,000 RIAA lawsuits and The Pirate Bay trial, all issues that brought copyright to the forefront of even most lay of laypeople.

However, for our copyright version of Rip Van Winkle, this book represented an opportunity. It was a chance to correct his mistakes and present either a modified argument or new support for his existing one.

That’s why it is a terrible shame he failed to do either.

The Meat of the Book

Helprin’s lack of understanding of the nature of copyright on the Web is understandable. By his own admission he is a man who spends as little time in front of a screen as possible and has an extreme love affair for more traditional means of communication. He drives the point home early by expressing preference for a fictional 1908 world versus an equally-fictional not-too-distant future one, even though the 1908 world required weeks for letters to be sent and received.

However, his decision to write a book entitled “Digital Barbarism” without a rudimentary study of the digital culture is rather striking. His first, and most critical, blunder was to lump all copyright reformists into one category. The Lessig’s of the world are no different than The Pirate Bay admins. All of them, in Helprin’s mind, are copyright abolitionists and need to be treated as such because any scaling back of rights or reform of copyright law (other than more extensions) is just a step down the road to abolition.

Of course, to read Lessig’s work and watch his lectures is to understand that he is very much a believer in copyright, Lessig does not wish to abolish copyright (without copyright Creative Commons would collapse) nor does he condone piracy, a point he makes repeatedly. His reforms, though still very sweeping, are targeted at re-balancing copyright law, not ending it.

But once Helprin lumps the commons into the abolitionist movement, he doesn’t stop. He plows forward with arguments against the abolition of copyright, many of which are very compelling and very correct, but are poorly targeted. It is like arguing against fascism to someone who just wishes to add a new tax. The “slippery slope” is neither slippery nor absolute. A movement in one direction does not always equal a revolutionary rush to the extreme on that side.

Yet, that’s how Helprin spends the book. Attacking shadows with arguments that don’t fit. Though at times the rocks he throws are well-aimed, the targets are a figment of his own imagination and a product of his own stereotyping.

Wasted Pages

Though the other reviews and even the big copyright symbol on the cover might lead many to believe that this is a book about copyright issues, much of it is not. Helprin makes much of his case against copyright abolition largely through anecdotes. But while personal stories are a natural addition to such books, both Lessig and Keen used them in theirs, Helprin’s anecdote/argument ratio is extremely high.

Helprin has led a very accomplished and exciting life, that much is clear from this book. I hope to have one half as exciting over the next thirty years or so. However “Barbarism” is not intended to be a memoir nor does it read like one.

The problem with “Barbarism” is that his stories, without any central plot or direction, tend to wonder aimlessly, often for pages at a time. When the word “copyright” is finally mentioned again, it feels as if it was the punchline to a very long, very bad joke. His stories are so tangential to the main issue that only one, the tale of him stealing an ear of corn from a farmer’s field, seemed to have any solid connection to the issue.

One example, he tells two stories about him fighting, or trying to fight, bulls. The first a bull in France that was rather tame and played nicely, the other one that had broken loose on his own property and nearly killed him. All of this was to explain that the response to his article was like a bull, specifically the second one. Many pages spent for an analogy that would have been just as effective with two lines.

In the end, much of the book felt like a stereotype portrayed by the character Abe (Grandpa) Simpson from The Simpsons. A teller of long, winding tales that go nowhere until the teller seems to fall asleep only to wake up back on topic.

Petty Insults

When Helprin isn’t telling stories that he tries to connect to copyright, he is insulting his perceived enemy. However, though he is at times a very witty author in this book, that edge seems to dissipate far too often and he uses words so blunt they could bludgeon someone to death.

For example, at one point, Helprin describes his opponents as “mouth breather”, “Slurpee-sucking geeks” “beer-drinking dufuses” and more (Thanks to the New York Times for pointing me to the quote I needed). Even the title of his book refers to his perceived opponents as “barbarians”, which in and of itself is a derogatory term.

For every valid point Helprin makes over the course of the book, his arguments are undermined endlessly by his pettiness and stereotyping. Since the targets of his insults are typically the younger generations, this also furthers the image of Helprin as an old man yelling at the “darn kids” even if the kids are twenty and thirty-somethings.

The result of Helprin’s painting with broad strokes is that even supporters of copyright, such as myself, find ourselves in his crosshairs, alienating the very people that may have been in the best position to rush to his defense.

Flawed Arguments

When you whittle away the personal asides and petty insults, you wind up with precious few pages that actually address the issues of copyright and offer any significant input on the issue.

On that front, I actually support some of Helprin’s founding principles, namely that no man should be entitled to the work of another for free without permission, that copyright has helped make possible the vast and diverse culture we have today, that artists create something well worth protecting and that copyright is, in large part, about protecting the investments of time, money and energy put into a work.

On that front, Helprin does a decent enough job defending the idea of copyright. In the third chapter, he has a fairly interesting discussion of the philosophies of Jefferson and Macaulay that, more than any other part of the book, actually provokes thought and makes a good case for copyright.

However, over the course of the book, he completely fails to answer to his detractors. While he cites thousands of nasty emails received, acknowledges the presence of Lessig’s wiki rebuttal to his Times column, he addresses the actual arguments of neither. He says they are there and moves on, only making fun of their grammar and/or the method with which they were delivered (Helprin really didn’t like that Wiki format Lessig used).

Worse still, he rehashes many of the same arguments form the column, only more fleshed out. For example, throughout the book he makes many (flawed) comparisons between intellectual property and real property. However, it was those arguments, in large part, that created the connection between his name and perpetual copyright, something he is now disavowing (though still favoring extensions).

In short, Helprin seems to have emerged from his ordeal with the Times none the wiser. He is repeating the same arguments like a failed General sticking to the same tactics. With no new arguments and a dismal failure at understanding what it is he is writing about, Helprin steps into the same tar pits again, just merely putting his foot down harder.

Helprin’s arguments fell flat in the 1000-word Times column and now fall equally flat over the course of a 220-page book.

The Devil Inside

However, perhaps Helprin’s greatest enemy is himself. Throughout the entire book he seems to contradict his own views and ideas. Though it may be an attempt to find balance within himself, it comes across as a see-saw back and forth between the extremes.

Where once he claims to hate the “infernal machines”, to prefer a circa-1900 life to a modern one and to spend as little time in front of a computer as possible, he also claims to own five computers, have come up with an idea for an eBook reader he proposed and even simply “loves” machines. (Note: He does say he is in favor of people using machiens but not machines using people. However, he fails to distinguish between our growing dependence on computers to, for example, our current dependence on cars.)

Where he claims to be against perpetual copyright due to the intent of the framers of the Constitution, he also bases many of his arguments on the ownership of physical property, which is perpetual.

Even the book itself is a contradiction, at the same time he cries out against iPhones and BlackBerries his book, most likely due to his publisher’s decision, is available on the Kindle and, thus, the iPhone, which is exactly how I read it.

But no matter the cause of the latter conflict, it is smacking to read an attack on iPhones and other smartphones that is being sold on the iPhone.

Sadly, of the three conflicts, it is the least confusing and the least troublesome.

Bottom Line

Helprin’s book is $25 dollars if you purchase the book in print or $10 if you purchase the Kindle version. However, it is not worth either. Though the Kindle version is the best way to read this book (I tried both), it is because it allows you to break the book up into much smaller sections than Helprin provides (Chapter 2 alone takes up almost half of the book) and makes it easier to go through Helprin’s rambling stories.

Though the book feels hefty when you pick it up at your bookstore, it is very thin on actual commentary and heavy with largely-unrelated stories, insults and stereotypes. There is little in this book that is not in his op-ed pieces and, I would argue, those pieces say it better. At least in those you do not have to sit through pages and pages of Helprin’s disjointed memories to reach a barely-tangential point about copyright.

Though Helprin is right when he says that this book is not a memoir, it is because a memoir would have an ongoing plot and a sense of direction. In truth, an actual memoir could have been a very good book, it is clear that Helprin is a talented author with a lot of great stories to tell, but this is not the format for them.

I would pass on this book and stick to his op-eds. The novel-length copyright polemic is one that few authors can tackle. Helprin is not one of them. Though I think he is a very talented writer and may look up some of his other work, this is not the format for him.