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In Praise of Copying (Marcus Boon)

From The Chronicle of Higher Education

October 17, 2010

Play It Again, Professor

By Tom Bartlett

Play It Again, Professor 1

At a reading in Toronto for his new book, In Praise of Copying, Marcus Boon (reflected in mirror) treated listeners to words from other writers.

Marcus Boon gave a reading recently to promote his new book. It took place at Spoonbill & Sugartown, a bookstore in Brooklyn. About 40 or 50 people showed up. But they didn’t hear a single word written by Mr. Boon.

Instead, he read from a 1960s sex manual, an Italian cookbook, and Bob Dylan’s memoir, among others. He had grabbed those books, more or less at random, from the store’s shelves an hour before the event. So why not read from the book he actually wrote? “I didn’t see a need to,” says Mr. Boon, an associate professor of English at York University, in Toronto. That’s because, he says, the same concepts could be found elsewhere, albeit in slightly altered form.

Not coincidentally, that’s the case he makes in his book, In Praise of Copying (Harvard University Press). Mr. Boon argues that originality is more complicated than it seems, and that imitation may be the sincerest form of being human. He writes: “I came to recognize that many of the boundaries we have set up between activities we call ‘copying’ and those we call ‘not copying’ are false, and that, objectively, phenomena that involve copying are everywhere around us.”

He read from the cookbook because recipes aren’t protected by copyright law (unless they contain a “substantial literary expression,” according to the U.S. Copyright Office). He read from the memoir because of Dylan’s liberal borrowings from traditional folk music. And he read from the sex manual because, well, sex is all about reproduction, isn’t it?

At one point during the evening, Mr. Boon seemed to be reading from his own book. In fact, he had slipped his dust jacket over a copy of Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), a new book by Lewis Hyde. Mr. Hyde, a professor of creative writing at Kenyon College and author of the much-lauded books The Gift and Trickster Makes This World, touches on many of the same themes as Mr. Boon, extolling “that vast store of unowned ideas, inventions, and works of art we have inherited from the past and continue to enrich.”

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