Rambling About Reading

Brooklyn College political science professor Corey Robin wrote an interesting piece on his unusual reading routine. He rides the New York City subway system for hours to escape distraction. At home, he finds himself constantly drawn to the Internet, and repeatedly refreshing Twitter and Facebook doesn't really count as reading.

Robin writes:

If I’m reading at home, I rush to the computer, and post about it on Facebook or here on my blog. And then I don’t get off. For hours. When I’m on the train, there’s nothing to do, but note it on the back page, and stay on. For hours.

I can relate. I spend all day in the office reading and writing, but it's almost never for fun. Sometimes my research is entertaining, especially when a case is of particular interest to me, such as the ongoing marriage equality work I've been doing for more than six months now. Most of my reading is dull, though. Statutes, procedural histories, rules of court, strategic motions from opposing counsel, etc. At work, very little of my reading is truly enjoyable.

At home, I find myself constantly distracted by the Internet, the television, my wife, food, sunlight, and pretty much anything with blinking lights or beeping sounds. Our bookshelf spends most of its time untouched, the many volumes of science fiction, history, science, sociology, art, and fantasy fiction sitting undisturbed for months at a time. It's embarrassing to have a home full of great books gathering dust.

I rarely spend money on myself, but a couple of months ago I got crazy and bought an e-reader. Despite still preferring the feel and smell of actual, physical books, I went electronic for two reasons: 1) I needed something to encourage and facilitate more recreational reading, and 2) I became aware of the vast number of free ebooks available online.

Indeed, there are a ton of free ebooks. Most of what I've downloaded for free are classics of political science, history, and literature, and they're free because they're in the "public domain." The public domain contains works that are free for public consumption without restriction because the intellectual property rights of the author have expired. I've found free books and collections by legendary writers and thinkers such as Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, John Stuart Mill, Lysander Spooner, Karl Marx, Frederick Douglas, Emile Durkheim, and Charles Beard. I've been able to easily read classic works I should have read years ago but didn't because I didn't have the money, time, or space to acquire physical copies.

Unfortunately, the range of free ebooks of classic materials is limited because the public domain is limited. In fact, recent amendments to U.S. copyright laws have purposely delayed the expiration of intellectual property rights for millions of books and collections. For example, anything written before 1923 is part of the public domain, but most written work after that remains locked down for 95 years after the publication date or 70 years after the death of the author (depending on the nature of the original copyright). 

So in those precious moments when I'm free of distraction and able to devote spare time to recreational reading, my options are limited by what I can afford to buy or what is currently in the public domain. It's frustrating that works by some of my favorite 20th Century authors - Isaac Asimov, J.R.R. Tolkien, Carl Sagan, Ray Bradbury - won't reach the public domain for at least fifty or sixty more years. I'll probably be dead by then.

I suppose there are worse problems to have. After all, I can instantly download and have at my fingertips some of the greatest books, stories, and essays ever written. Right now. For free. But knowing that arbitrary laws deny easy access to so many more is frustrating to a hopeless bibliophile like me.