Is JK Rowling the only kids’ book gazillionaire? I’d like to think there’s room for more than one kids’ book superstar – someone, maybe, who makes their money (more quietly than JK) from multiple national markets and formats and from a younger, less bankable audience? If there is, it’s probably Lucy Cousins, creator of the astonishing Maisy (if you have kids and you haven’t heard of Maisy then you’re probably a Mormon, or a vegan or something).
Maisy’s a sophisticated heroine, in a deceptively crude style (always shown, Egyptian-style, in profile). She’s brightly coloured and lives on her own, although she seems to be about 4 (maybe 5) She does exactly what she wants (including, occasionally, driving a bus or flying an aeroplane). Oh, and she’s a mouse. And a global marketing phenomenon, obviously.
A couple of months ago I went to Geneva to spend a weekend talking about business ethics with a bunch of thinkers, theologians, business leaders and other brainy types. Beth Krasna, who organised the event, has now turned it into a book, edited by Tim Hindle and published by Profile (the people behind the Economist Books) which you can, of course, buy from your local branch of amazon.com. The book is an impressive distillation of the compressed, chaotic multi-strand discussion we managed that weekend. If anything’s missing I’m pretty sure it didn’t happen.
Listen. You’re going to think I’m a bit stupid for raising this. I mean right now, two days from IMPACT and all that. Anyway, I’m watching the New Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh on Playhouse Disney. Pooh, Piglet and the gang are playing ice hockey (Eeyore is in goal). Why do I find this so annoying? I guess it’s because Pooh is the most perfect, most complete English language children’s book character The 20th Century produced (name a better one, win a tenner). It’s reasonable to assume, though, that he’s now walled up in Disney’s Enchanted Castle of Copyright forever. Disney’s is probably the last Pooh.
No one will ever get to reinterpret Pooh, no one will ever ‘revoice’ him or provide a new look for the bear – he is, forever, Disney’s. A compliant US legislature (and, thus, WIPO and the rest of the global intellectual property establishment) will, presumably, happily extend copyright protection indefinitely and ‘new media’ versions (games, online and so on) of Winnie-the-Pooh won’t even need extra protection because they’ll inherit the automatic protection provided to software products (and don’t get me started on DRM). Free Pooh! (actually, now that I’m thinking about it, it always used to wind me up that there was a gopher in Disney’s Hundred Acre Wood too. A gopher).
When I was young, I used to love John Berger. Then I went off to college in the Big City and quickly learnt that he was out-of-date: a crusty old humanist in the cold universe of infinitely deferred closure and inaccessible meaning (and all that). So I put his books up on a high shelf and tried to get on with the unloveable Red Brigade of deconstructivists and post-structuralists I was supposed to identify with now. It didn’t really work (I did my best) and, twenty years on, the old Bolshevist has conspicuously and happily outlived the ‘theory’ nihilists. In London this month, there’s a celebration of the man’s life & work.
Sean O’Hagan wrote a lovely piece about him for The Observer last week and here are a couple of emotional pieces by the man himself from The Guardian: one about his old friend Cartier-Bresson (another sad old humanist) and one about Fahrenheit 9/11.
When I was about eighteen my Dad, who used to visit a village in the Haute Savoie close to Berger’s, walked the couple of miles up the mountain to Berger’s fantastically remote house – no electricity and no running water at the time – to ask him to sign my copy of Another Way of Telling. Berger was out but his wife promised he’d sign and return the book by post so my Dad left the book behind. When he told me he’d troubled the great man in his mountain hide-out I was mortified but, after a couple of weeks, it turned up, politely and tidily inscribed. I’m looking at it now.
Steal This File Sharing Book by Wallace Wang, Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing by Andrew M. St. Laurent (and Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman).
Starting with Steal This File Sharing Book. I would really like to tell you that this is a great book. Or that it cleverly updates Abbie Hoffman’s yippie freeloader’s bible, Steal This Book (Stealing it from amazon is going to present some problems, though, I guess). Or even that it’ll help you understand file sharing. Sadly, I can’t. I’ll keep it around but it’s tough to imagine a use for it beyond this review. I wish Wang had provided a history of file sharing technologies. I wish he’d thought more about the future (beyond version updates and law suits). I wish he’d found the time to discuss the ethical context and I wish he’d been a bit less morally ambivalent about file sharing. Where Hoffman is morally certain (thieving from dumb corporations and dumber Governments is a good thing), Wang worries the issue and leaves the reader frankly at sea. I’d also have liked some discussion of new rights models (GPL, Creative Commons and so on) and of new methods like BitTorrent. I wonder if file sharing is one of those topics that really doesn’t warrant a book at all?
This is more like it. Understanding Open Source and Free Software Licensing is a small but perfectly formed 194 pages on every kind of software license you’ve ever heard of, including the non-free and nearly-free ones. Actual licenses, annotated and explained, are the body of the book with plenty of legal asides and some gentle (legally-phrased) criticism where necessary. I’m not about to release a software product but if I were I’d buy this unpretentious book and since software licensing seems to be the bleeding edge of the fast-changing rights landscape (can landscapes have bleeding edges?), where all the interesting work is being done, I think this book should interest a lot of non-techies too.
Here’s a list of geeky books I’ve currently got for sale over at amazon.co.uk. Go on. Buy some. They’re all brand new and every single one is cheaper than you’ll get it anywhere else – sometimes four or five pounds less than amazon.co.uk. I’ve highlighted the ones I think are really good in bold (that doesn’t mean I understand them).
You can also get an up-to-date list of things I’m selling here any time (I think).
Have you ever visited the Hundred Acre Wood? You can, you know. It’s a real place, hidden in the Home Counties and quite recognisably Pooh’s domain. All the landmarks are there, even the sandy place where Kanga and Roo lived. If you were brought up with Pooh it’s a quite amazing experience. It’s quaint, of course – very English – cream teas, a nice gift shop, the original Pooh Sticks bridge. It has absolutely nothing to do with Disney, though. It’s a non-Disney attraction. No one dressed as Tigger, no rides, no attractions, no hotel (no entry fee): just a fading trace of Winnie-the-Pooh’s origins, the place his creator lived and played, where Christopher Robin grew up.
I haven’t been there for years. I only mention it, really, because I just read that Pooh and his friends earned Disney $5.3 Billion in the last year. There’s something in that collision (unstoppable licensing powerhouse and quiet, half-buried English childhood treasure) that takes the breath away, something very descriptive of the whole business vs art, capital vs culture thing. Disney took a tiny, local, very modest cultural phenomenon and made from it the second richest fiction franchise in history. Is that a bad thing? No. Are the Pooh purists wrong when they say Disney ruined the characters? Yes. Disney’s forty year investment in Winnie-the-Pooh has taken him a long way from his quiet Surrey origins but without it generations of kids might never have heard of him.
A much bigger concern for me is Disney’s ruthless campaign to extend copyright protection for their properties into the distant future – a kind of sequestration that threatens to close off large parts of our literary and entertainment culture for good (I’ve written about this before). I guess $5B of annual income from one character is going to make you a little protective of your assets but it makes me sad to know that, in a period of unprecedented graphical and technical experimentation, we’ll probably never see another interpretation of Pooh. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to see a new Pooh from a studio you’ve never heard of or an illustrator with a new angle? (I guess I’m thinking of how much Helen Oxenbury’s gorgeous new interpretation of Alice adds to the Tenniel originals).
(Obviously, you’d have been upset if I hadn’t linked to this useful medical diagnosis).
Measuring value-for-money on a scale of 1-10, this Neal Stephenson interview (conducted by the Slashdot groupmind) approaches infinity. A generous, clever and funny man.
Thanks to practically everyone for the link.
The last time Penguin gave its Puffin kids’ imprint a new logo was in the year I was born, 1963. In the same year Puffin published Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and The Opies’ Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes – a good year. The old logo is evocative – it rushes me back 35 years to a small shelf of carefully organised Puffins in my bedroom. The new one “bears a stronger resemblance to its ornithological roots. It is a softer more curvy design and the lozenge and the tone of the colour version tie it much more strongly to the Penguin logo” according to this press release…