BeloWatch | Dallas Observer


Bad memory chip?
The East Dallas reader of The Dallas Morning News thought what she was reading seemed familiar--suspiciously familiar.

Veteran News editorial-page columnist Ann Melvin was weighing in on the debate over whether books on computer will someday make the paper-and-ink version obsolete.

Absolutely not, Melvin opined, in a 646-word column headlined "Reports of books' death are greatly exaggerated."

What struck the News reader was the similarity of Melvin's August 27 column to a much longer piece she had read in the most recent issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

That article, written by D.T. Max, was headlined "The End of the Book?" It ran six and a half pages in the September issue of the national magazine, which, according to the head of the publication's production department, was mailed to subscribers on August 6 and hit newsstands on August 23.

The reader wrote to the letters column of the News, explaining that she was "surprised to find Ann Melvin...lifting not only the idea but also examples from 'The End of the Book?'--a piece by D.T. Max in the September Atlantic Monthly." She received a standard-issue postcard from the News explaining that the paper was unable to publish her letter because it receives so much mail from readers.

The issue of giving proper credit and attribution for facts, quotations, and ideas is an exceedingly sensitive one in journalism. In the marketplace of ideas, there is no greater offense than intellectual theft.

And it is an offense to which Melvin--who has written for the News for 33 years--pleads absolutely, positively not guilty.

"I'm not aware of that piece," she told BeloWatch, during the first of two discussions about the Atlantic story. "Sometimes I read the Atlantic Monthly. I don't subscribe to it. I have written about this subject for 12 years. I may not have seen that particular issue."

A BeloWatch comparison of the articles reveals that there are no identical paragraphs or sentences in the two pieces.

It is clear, however, that the theme for the Melvin column, a handful of examples, and a colorful quotation from John Updike that she uses were all previously presented in the Atlantic story. Her final line in the column also echoes a phrase in Max's piece.

As its theme, Melvin's column raises and rejects the notion that "any day now, books, magazines, newspapers--any printed matter--will be obsolete...[and] we will all be reading our computer screens."

Max focuses on whether the rise of the "computer culture" would "end with the elimination by CD-ROMS and networked computer databases of the hardcover, the paperback, and the world of libraries and literate culture that had grown up alongside them. Was print on its way out?"

Melvin spotlights evidence of the short life span of technological devices, citing "diskettes, CD-ROMS, Betamax, Apple Macintosh..." At another point she asks: "Listened to any good super-8 tapes lately?"

Max discusses the fleeting nature of "transitional technology like diskettes, CD-ROMs and Unix tapes--candidates, with eight-track tapes, Betamax, and the Apple Macintosh, for rapid obscurity."

Melvin makes reference to: "Portal, the first novel to be read solely on computer, which computer now has been outmoded by a more sophisticated model, on which the original book program cannot be read"; to how "if you visit the right library, you still can hold in your lap and yes, read the original print versions of William Shakespeare's plays"; to "hackers and families playing interactive games like "Bram Stoker's Dracula"; and to how "some printed material, like dictionaries and encyclopedias, are much more easily accessed and updated in the computer versions..."

Max's previously published story identifies Rob Swigart's Portal as "perhaps the first novel ever written specifically to be read on a computer" and notes that it was designed for the Apple Macintosh, "among other computers of its day," which "was superseded months later by the more sophisticated Macintosh SE, which, according to Swigart, could not run his hypertext novel...Portal became for the most part unreadable."

Max details admiringly how, in Washington, D.C.'s Folger Shakespeare Library, filled with 370-year-old works of the bard, "you can still pull down these books and read them...You can balance it on your lap..." Max also makes reference to the Sony-backed interactive game version of its movie Bram Stoker's Dracula and discusses how "the hand cannot match a computer chip in accessing given references," such as "dictionaries and encyclopedias."

Max also interviewed and quotes writer John Updike, who dismisses the prospect of computers replacing books, citing "the charmy little clothy box of the thing, the smell of the glue, even the print, which has its own beauty." Updike adds: "I can't break the association of electric trash with the computer screen. Words on the screen give the sense of being just another passing electronic wriggle."

Melvin, in her column later that month, also quotes (actually misquotes) Updike. Without citing a source for the comment, she writes: "And perhaps we all harbor John Updike's sense of words on a screen as "electric trash...just another passing electronic wiggle."

Rhapsodizing on the virtues of the printed book, Max notes, "You can curl up in bed with it or get suntan lotion on it."

Melvin ends her column with the rhetorical question: "When was the last time you curled up alone with your computer screen."

A collection of coincidences? Melvin contends it is.
"Shit happens," she told BeloWatch. "A lot of us are writing about the same thing."

News executive editor Ralph Langer did not return BeloWatch calls for comment.

During an initial telephone interview, Melvin told BeloWatch "the Updike quote's pretty common knowledge." During a second conversation a week later, after reviewing the Atlantic piece and her own column, she said she heard the Updike quotation--published for the first time in the D.T. Max story--during a phone chat with a friend in California and decided to use it in her column. "I do know where I got mine [my quotation], which was just in conversation with a person in Los Angeles, who was just talking about a similar subject, and I jotted it down."

The examples she used in her column are "pretty much common knowledge," Melvin says. "This is an issue that a lot of thoughtful people talk about a lot."

About the discussion of curling up with a computer or a book, Melvin says: "This is common vernacular to talk about the coldness of computer technology."

Melvin, who has written her column, now published every Saturday, for more than a decade, called the suggestion that she had stolen a quote from another publication "laughable."

"I've been a stickler for attribution over the years," says Melvin. "This is a non-issue.

"I'm accused of being too creative on my own--and not using enough references and crap.

"I'm just a very ordinary little woman out here who writes some very good stuff and some stuff that's very forgettable.