Out of Print but Not Out of Mind

Let’s say you got interested in the books of Eve Babitz after I waxed enthusiastic on Podunk Pundit. So you go to Amazon or your friendly neighborhood bookseller to buy a copy. No dice. Out of print.

Well, it happens. Let’s try Amazon or ABE or Alibris for a used copy. Yes, there they are. I can buy a used copy of “Sex and Rage” for $64, “Two by Two” for $315, “Slow Days, Fast Company” for $105 or a copy — presumably illuminated by cloistered monks — of “Eve’s Hollywood” for $2420.00.

What gives? Rarity, one supposes. But these are mass market books published a scant 40 years ago, not the 1840 Penny Black or the Brasher Doubloon.

But who cares? I’ll just get a nice digital copy now that everything is available on the internets. But there too, no soap. Everything is not available on the internets. Why?

Turns out, according to a study by University of Illinois School of Law Prof. Paul Heald, part of the problem can be traced back to copyright changes that are now granted for the life of the author plus some.

Heald found an odd result. About 85% of popular songs from 1923-1932 are available on iTunes whereas only 35% of popular books from the same period are available as eBooks. And it gets worse if the books are more recent and not in the public domain. So, less than 10% of books reviewed by The New York Times between 1930 and 1950 can be purchased as eBooks.

Letting author’s earn longer has had the perverse effect of not letting them learn anything since their publishers simply let the books remain out of print. Presumably they calculate that they won’t make enough from their oldies but goodies to pay the cost of digitizing them. But they are also apparently unwilling to relinquish the copyright and allow the author or a more enterprising publisher to take the plunge. This is behavior may mother used to describe as a dog in a manger, probably unaware she was channeling Aesop.

The result appears to be a vast Sargasso Sea of intellectual property that is unavailable to posterity or readers willing to look beyond today’s ephemeral bestseller list. Publishers no doubt feel they know best, but they don’t.

A shining example is the wonderful fiction of Dawn Powell which was long out of print until Tim Page, blessings upon him, wrote a biography and twisted the arms of publishers until they brought back a few of her titles. Her “My Home is Far Away” is a classic portrait of the artist as a young American woman and her comic novels of bohemian New York in its late 1940s heyday are priceless. She was a posthumous hit, remains in print and may secure a niche in the canon.

The same could be said of Henry Green and countless others. And that was before the advent of the eBook made it cheaper and less risky to resurrect forgotten authors. Nor is such carelessness with their own possibly valuable property confined to publishers. Recond companies are known to engage in similar short-sightedness.

For years one of Tony Bennett’s greatest albums, “For Once in My Life,” from 1967 was unavailable except on scratchy used vinyl . Yet it boasts tremendous arrangements by Torrie Zito and Marion Evans of rare gems like “How Do You Say Auf Weidersehen?” Finally a CD was issued overseas, then a US reissue and now it can be downloaded, but it was down the memory hole for decades. And this is a guy still going strong who has achieved national treasure status.

What chance do lesser acts have? In this case I blame Columbia which had a tremendous line-up of artists in the 1950s and ‘60s in part due to the brilliant John Hammond. But now much of it languishes in the vaults. Are these people record promoters or hoarders?

For example, where’s “Like Sing,” a lovely vocal jazz album by Jackie and Roy performing songs by André and Dory Previn from the “Mad Men” era. It is unobtainable. God knows how many hundreds or thousands of equally delectable records are MIA.

Put them on line or let somebody else do it. You just might make a buck and would surely gratify fans and keep intact a more complete record of the cultural heritage your company helped create and now is content to forget. Shame.

April Fool Invades Mitteleuropa

On this day there’s a tradition of gentle pranks, whimsical surprises, unexpected amusements after a long, gray unfunny winter. Ideal, then, that a new Wes Anderson movie has finally arrived in Podunk. There have been rumors of it from the Big City, then news that it was playing a couple weeks ago in the middling city down the road, but now it has gotten to the outback.

His latest is called “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and characteristically it is not set in Budapest. The movie tells the tale of the proper concierge of the grand hotel in the autumn of its splendor during the Great Depression. He is M. Gustave, played with becoming precision and hauteur by Ralph Fiennes. He is a man who demands perfection from his staff and who personally sees to the every whim of the guests, especially the wealthy widows.

M. Gustave takes under his wing as Lobby Boy a striving orphan appropriately named Zero (Tony Revolori) and together they experience kaleidoscopic adventures when Gustave tries to claim an inheritance from one of his deceased guests. Her family resorts to any expedient to deny it to him. The divine silliness includes a chase on skis and dogsled (sans dogs), switched wills, an art heist, a prison break and train rides in which our heroes are roughed up by one tyrannical regime after another – the history of the 20th Century in Central Europe in capsule form.

All is told in flashback by an aged Zero, now known as Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), once the heir to Gustave’s fortune but now living in a squalid room in the decaying hotel. He has lost both inheritance and hotel in the latest change of fortune for his homeland. The fluffy Viennese waltz of the hotel’s early years has been replaced by the drab decrepitude of the worker’s paradise.

As usual with Anderson, the art direction alone is worth the price of admission. Much in the Grand Budapest looks like a child’s pop-up book. Also as usual the Wes Anderson indie stock company is in evidence with frequent collaborators in minor parts – Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Bob Balaban, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody.

Anderson is an interesting case of the American auteur like Woody Allen and Orson Welles before him. His movies have a handmade feel and he relies in front and behind the camera on many of the same people again and again. A family of sorts? He makes films that attract a loyal following and critical praise, but he has never had a mass market hit, in part because he works in no conventional genre. They are personal projects from one man’s slant. They do seem to dwell on a few themes that appear to come from life.

Anderson grew up in Houston, the son of prosperous parents with advertising and real estate careers who divorced when he was eight. He has identified that event as central to his life. He has two brothers and fractured families, absent parents and sibling relations are central to his films – Bottle Rocket, Rushmore (filmed at his own prep school – St. John’s), The Royal Tennenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom.

Like one of his favorite directors, Francois Truffaut, Anderson has a soft spot for the young and misunderstood. In Rushmore and Budapest a clever outsider is befriended by an older father figure. In Darjeeling and Tennenbaums bewildered adults are still trying to come to terms with bizarre parents. In Moonrise Kingdom, the young people give up on the hopeless adults and run away to the woods to form their own imaginary Arden. In almost all cases, brotherhood trumps all other bonds.

If Woody Allen has melded Groucho and Bergman and Spielberg is forever revisiting Saturday matinee popcorn genres, Anderson seems to inhabit the land of the Grimm Brothers with their wicked stepmothers, lost and found siblings, scary trolls and lucky heroes.

Lurking behind the ethereal foolery of Budapest is the fact that it was inspired by the work of Stefan Zweig, an ornament of glorious turn of the century Vienna who saw its civilized life perish under the boots of Hitler’s ogres. Though Anderson’s movies seem light comic confections with a dash of the surreal, a closer look often reveals a tear in the eye of the clown.

To Your Health: This May Hurt a Little

The executive and legislative branches have failed to provide the country with a healthcare system the equal of most of our global competitors. But luckily, the third branch’s Supreme Court has ridden to the rescue.

Last week it heard complaints by an evangelical, arts and crafts billionaire and Mennonite carpenters who say their freedom of religion is threatened if they have to provide health insurance for employees that includes birth control methods they regard as tantamount to abortion. I mean who gets to decide these things, you and your doctor or your employer, the faith healer?

Is this a great country or what? Here is a country where forty million people have no insurance and many more face bankruptcy if they have a major illness. Meanwhile insurance companies and hospitals are richer than ever and Medicare fraud practitioners have Swiss bank accounts. Yet the highest court is deciding if corporations are to be regarded as having religious scruples.

The explanation for this absurd situation can be found in a book called “An Introduction to Legal Reasoning” from which I learned that legal reasoning bears little resemblance to reasoning, if by that we mean logic or rationality. Legal reasoning is figuring out what a law (cobbled together by bickering partisans and interpreted by one court after another of bickering legal zealots) means to the latest court of biased, fallible, political appointees. Good luck.

In deciding this case the 5-4 Republican, 6-3 Catholic Roberts Court will no doubt take a dim view of a) abortion b) government infringing the rights of corporations to pretend they are human beings c) the health care needs of actual human beings if they interfere with the right of employers to do whatever they please, particularly if cloaked in their Freedom of Religion.

One could discuss the baroque legal craziness that has encrusted the First Amendment right to attend the house of worship of your choice, but why bother? Dylan Thomas’s reaction when he first visited America perfectly sums up two centuries of Freedom of Religion jurisprudence; “It’s all a mistake, but it’s too late for you and I to do anything about it.”

The real point ought to be figuring out how to devise a system that assures all Americans access to affordable care, takes the costly onus off employers, and gets profiteering insurance companies out of the middle, one that spends less on healthcare without impairing quality and covers the uninsured so they don’t end up free riders on everyone else’s health care dime. Most developed countries manage the trick and Medicare seems to have coped with the elderly successfully.

Virtually none of our economic competitors tie health care to employment which is a weird dodge invented during World War II to attract good workers by offering a perk that got around wage controls. Today employers would love not to have to waste time and money dealing with ever rising health care costs. Most workers would love to be freed from the lousy benefits that come with lousy jobs and the job lock that comes from fear of leaving a lousy job that has good benefits.

The current system is bad for workers and bad for business and inflates the cost of health care due to the insurance industry middleman. But if corporations don’t supply health care, who will?

The billionaire owners of Hobby Lobby can pay for any medical needs out of pocket, but their employees are dependent on them for insurance. We are becoming a bifurcated country when it comes to health care. Sloan Kettering, Cleveland Clinic and Mayo for the monied, Podunk medicine or none at all for the poor and working classes.

Opponents of Obamacare love to say they don’t want government getting between you and your doctor or running death panels or inflating the cost of care. How cozy and old-fashioned that sounds, the family Doc straight out of Norman Rockwell making house calls.

But the reality is that the insurers already stand between me and my doctor and were inflating premiums annually long before Obama came along to blame. They tell my doctor which drugs are covered and which procedures will be paid for. They decide which doctor or hospital I can use. If they aren’t in my plan, they won’t pay.

The present system is a mess with middle men siphoning off gigantic piles of cash. They are not in the business of meeting my medical needs but increasing their own bottom line. Obamacare is a Rube Goldberg device created to split the difference between rapacious free enterprise and Medicare-for-All in order to win Republican votes.

It won none. Better to have single-payer, but that’s creeping socialism and infringes the religious freedom of ruling class Republicans who worship Mammon. So if, as seems likely, they win House and Senate in November and are in a position to kill Obamacare, what will they put in its place?

Laws that favor their constituents, of course. Not you and I, but our old friends — insurance companies, hospital conglomerates, big pharma and Hobby Lobby billionaire anti-abortion activists. Meet the new mess, same as the old mess. Feeling better?

Postscript: I am gratified to learn this blog has readers at the executive level of NBC. A week ago I complained that David Gregory was the worst host in the history of “Meet the Press.” This week Chuck Todd was in the chair. A great improvement. Keep up the good work, NBC. And you’re welcome.