How Melville Won the Content Wars

ImageA lifetime or so ago, I wrote a doctoral thesis on the novels of Herman Melville. I delved into fancy-pants theoretical methodologies, gathered up historical and critical context, employed assorted academic straw men and spun my own far-flung exegeses, but the vast majority of my time was spent — sometimes gloriously, sometimes miserably — in the thick of Melville's fictional work.

His career started with success. Typee (1846), a South Seas travelogue-adventure narrative, became a bestseller, as did its hastily published follow-up, Omoo (1847). But Melville's authorial celebrity took a nosedive thereafter. By the time he was wrapping up Moby Dick in 1851, he despaired of ever making money or reaching audiences again.

"Dollars damn me," he wrote to friend and confidant Nathaniel Hawthorne, adding:

A presentiment is upon me, — I shall at last be worn out & perish, like an old nutmeg-grater, grated to pieces by the constant attrition of the wood, that is, the nutmeg. What I feel most moved to write, that is banned, — it will not pay. Yet, altogether, write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches ...

His novel of the Whale was neither a blockbuster like his first two books nor an abject failure like the ones that would follow and lead him to abandon commercial fiction for the more rarefied realm of poetry. But Melville did not live to see his massive, magical, maddening work celebrated as the greatest novel of all time — a sobriquet it has enjoyed frequently in the ensuing century and a half. Indeed, Moby Dick is often used synechdochally for the project of literary fiction: the paradigm of the mighty, elusive tome that heaves itself out of its very undulating pages with sprays of sparkling insight, impervious to interpreters' harpoons, then plunges back into its own murky, midnight depths.

Which goes part way toward explaining why, after I've confided my history with Melville at countless cocktail confabs, so many folks have felt it necessary to confess that they've never read Moby Dick — as though I'll somehow judge this a character defect. Hell, that book is a commitment, and even if you've blocked off a calendar week for nonstop reading on an island worthy of the man's early hits, it's a pretty sizable item to fit in your carry-on.

So that was the middle phase of Moby Dick: a must-read classic that a lot of people felt guilty about not reading.

But forget about Melville for a minute. I need to say a thing or two about how the Internet killed the record business. (Trust me: It'll all fit together in the end.)

ImageA few years before the millennium turned, I landed at a music-industry trade magazine, where I learned about things like radio promotion (which, as nauseating business models go, makes the whaling industry look like a sewing circle), distribution, retail and other elements of the biz. Not long after my arrival, the first warning blips were heard: Peer-to-peer technology enabled people to share recorded music over the Web on a mass scale for free. As tech columnist (among other things), I wrote often about the need to confront this emerging reality. But like some wild-eyed sea prophet, I was roundly ignored and derided.

At first the mighty captains of the industry dismissed the Internet. Then they feared it and tried to sue peer-to-peer companies and their users out of existence. Then they made various feeble attempts to co-opt online communities using old-school business schemes. Ultimately, their ships began to leak and sink. The officers and crew who survived paddled into more and more consolidated corporations. The record biz shrank. Online swapping continued.

Those who favored P2P trading as a new, democratizing form of distribution claimed that "content wants to be free," while defenders of the old model (aka "copyright maximalists") declared that without their price points artists would have no incentive to create. The latter crowd conveniently forgot how many writers, musicians and other content producers had sung the "dollars damn me" refrain under the commercial status quo.

The content wars raged on in other places: Newspapers and magazines struggled to make money peddling paragraphs users expected for free; movies and TV shows, in the wake of faster downloading and other developments, were shared almost as easily as albums.

But even as these words, images and sounds saw their power to generate coin diminish, new generations of devices overtook the marketplace — and with their fast speeds, easy interfaces and multitasking versatility, they were all hungry for content. Smart phones, e-readers, MP3 players (well, mostly iPods) and other gizmos were now the tail wagging the media dog. Apple made a bit of money from the iTunes Store, where the aforementioned songs, shows and films are sold, but the real dough came from the hardware that played them.

ImageThen came the iPad, Apple's shiny, all-purpose thingamajig, which tech pundits wagered would change everything. Although that projection sounds hyperbolic, the new machine has been selling briskly since its retail debut. Among its features is a very stylish reader app, with beautiful graphics including a flowy page-turning effect. It's about as close to reading a physical book as you can currently get in the digital realm.

Wisely, the developers of the bookstore from which iPad users select their reading decided to stock their shelves with some 30,000 public-domain volumes that could be downloaded for free. (The Kindle and other e-readers also feature public-domain titles.) Among these works was — you guessed it — Melville's Whale, its boisterous blowhole cheek-by-jowl with the narratives of Homer, Shakespeare and Conan Doyle. And one day my dear friend Jim Dinda showed me that Moby Dick had breached the uppermost waves of the iPad's free-books list, surfacing in the Top 20.

 

Now the Whale comes to you free and frictionless, whenever you cast your virtual fishing hook in his direction, and he won't weigh down your boat.

Why should this matter to anyone but a sentimental English major? Because it reflects the next phase of Moby Dick and classic literature in general. The fact that it's free makes it attractive, especially to students required to assay its briny bulk for intro-lit classes. Again, so what? Such volumes have long been available at no cost via libraries. But now the Whale comes to you free and frictionless, whenever you cast your virtual fishing hook in his direction, and he won't weigh down your boat; take him anywhere, in the company of Odysseus, Grendel, David Copperfield, Elizabeth Bennett and the rest of the literary canon's dramatis personae, and your iPad or other device will remain as portable as a magazine.

Yes, the book business depends on people paying for the content they read on their iPads. But the public-domain library at users' fingertips sows the seeds for more e-reading and ultimately, the purchase of new books. (It goes without saying that devotees of these handy machines can also use them to view the trailer for the upcoming movie version of Moby Dick, feast their eyes on frames from the Classics Illustrated comic-book adaptation, browse up Mellvillean tidbits like this or even delve into the secondary texts I studied for my thesis.)

In the midst of describing the completion of what would be regarded as his masterwork, Melville complained to Hawthorne that no matter how good his creation was, his and its obscurity were all but assured. "What's the use of elaborating what, in its very essence, is so short-lived as a modern book," he wrote, not even bothering to append a question mark. "Tho' I wrote the Gospels in this century, I should die in the gutter." One longs to show the man that his Whale not only lives, but swims the world over with ease.