Home > Uncategorized > Moral squalor – the crime of reading while being poor

Moral squalor – the crime of reading while being poor

September 16, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments



Phillip Pullman has been talking about original the very modern sin of illegal downloading, which he called ‘moral squalor.’ This made me cross. Why? Because I was about twenty-five years of age before I regularly bought brand new books and contributed to the coffers of their authors. But I read a lot before I was twenty five. I can’t begin to imagine who I might be today had I not read a lot, in the old days of the non-virtual books and the various ways one could obtain them without paying full price. And increasingly, I have no idea how a young and impoverished me of the future will get to read so much and remain on the right side of the law.


I’ll give you a relatively recent example of what I’m talking about. Right now I am counting down the three weeks ‘til Diane Setterfield’s second novel. (October 10th, people.) This is because a former housemate once bought The Thirteenth Tale, and left it on our kitchen table. Since I had absolutely no faith whatsoever in this housemate’s literary taste I ignored the eulogies and sneered at the book, until the Saturday afternoon I picked it up and read the first page. I picked it up at about three o’ clock. I finished it twelve hours later, having missed a friend’s birthday. The Thirteenth Tale is really very good. 


But you may note that I didn’t buy it. I borrowed it, which I think might be the non-virtual predecessor of ‘illegally downloading.’ But the Thirteenth Tale is the sort of book you want to read again, and so two winters’ later I bought it. Being the sort of book you also advocate on behalf of, I then lent it to a friend. And then bought another copy for myself. And then lent that to a friend. I doubt I currently own a copy of the Thirteenth Tale, but I’m quite sure I will buy another in my lifetime. And I will buy a shiny new full-price copy of Setterfield’s second novel when it comes out in three weeks.


A lovely story, everyone will agree. Finding an unexpected book in the depth of winter and falling in love with it and passing it on, like some kind of irritating prophet who bashes everyone over the head with other people’s holy books.


Suppose for a moment I had downloaded The Thirteenth Tale.


Aha, you say. Wait! I see the flaw in this slippery-slope-property-is-theft fallacy. In the real world, you subsequently bought new copies of the book when you gave one away! For every copy that was read, a new copy was bought.


Well, here’s the thing. I can’t remember whether those copies were new or second hand. I really can’t. I’ve been buying second hand books since I was about six. They were the only books I could afford, poor little Dickensian child that I was. Jumble sales and second hand books shops; graduating to Amazon in the digital age. This is not illegal. But it is much cheaper than a new book, and it denies the author their cut. Second hand books and borrowed books: the bedrock of my education.


As a result, there are two things I dislike about e-books:


  1. There does not appear to be a mechanism to re-sell them when they are rubbish (therefore allowing someone else to buy them second hand)
  2. There appear to be arbitrary limitations on lending them to others when they are brilliant.



To ‘lend’ a kindle book that you have purchased, with your money, and of which you are therefore the owner, the following rules apply:

You can lend a Kindle book to another reader for up to 14 days. The borrower does not need to own a Kindle device and can read the book after downloading a free Kindle reading app.

Note: A book can only be loaned one time.


One friend in all the world may be trusted to borrow the book. It’s very Lord of the Rings. Which few people will read in 14 days, so there’s not much point in lending that particular favourite.


It’s enough to make you question whether you have really bought an e-book, or are merely leasing it. Of course, you’re paying roughly the same price as you would for an old-school hard copy. And when we bought hard copies, it was traditional to ‘own’ them once the money had exchanged hands.


It’s always fun to bring up the time that Amazon surreptitiously and remotely deleted all copies of Orwell’s 1984, as though their customers had never bought 1984 and as though Amazon were unfamiliar with either 1984 or irony, and so I shall: Amazon once surreptitiously and remotely deleted all copies of Orwell’s 1984. 


So here’s the thing: I’m not advocating anyone breaks the law, but honest to sweet virtual Jesus lord and all the little e-books, the day they decided to sell us things that would not in fact be ours, did it not occur to them that people might laugh in their faces, flex their ingenuity, and find any way they could to screw them six ways to Sunday? It really should have occurred to someone. Because the only appropriate response to someone who asks you to ‘pay full price’ for something that they openly admit they do not intend to ‘sell you’ is the oh-so-modern ‘lol.’


Over the last few years, one quality has emerged above all others, when it comes to deciding to pay full price for a cultural artefact in order to support its creator. Whether I like the creator. It doesn’t mean they have to be ‘nice’ – I bloody hate ‘nice’. They might be interesting, or their cultural artefacts might be so compelling that I will ignore their crimes, their sins, their politics. There are lots of things to consider when hovering between the ‘buy new’ and ‘buy second hand’ or ‘don’t bother returning friend’s copy until they hunt you down with a weapon’ – the artist’s finances certainly come into play. I am more likely to financially support a band or an artist that I love when I think they might need the money.


And it turns out I’m a lot less likely to support those who whine about the moral squalor of reading while being poor.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. April 29, 2014 at 5:31 pm

    Ouch, didn’t realise this about Pullman. Great post!

  2. September 29, 2014 at 9:25 am

    Right here you have fifty HD Desktop computer Wallpapers For Your Inspiration Abstract
    and 3D.

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