Guilty as Charged

     In 1386, a 3-year-old pig was tried, and convicted, of murder.
     A sow, actually, “of three years, or thereabouts.” The sow had killed a human baby.
     After it was tried and sentenced, the sow was dragged through the streets and hanged, in Falaise, in northern France. They still have the hangman’s receipt.
     The last time an animal was criminally tried in Europe was in 1906.
     Here’s another one: While Shakespeare’s new plays were knocking them dead in London, the town’s most famous bears were named Sackerson, Harry Hunks, and Bess of Bromley. The bear-beating pit was just down the street from The Globe.
     Don’t you feel better for knowing this? I do. Hasn’t your life been enriched by it, at no cost to others, including pigs and bears, as Harry Hunks and the old sow are long dead and gone?
     The Aug. 12 Times Literary Supplement reviewed five new books about Shakespeare. If you want to buy them, and the forthcoming “The Assassination of Shakespeare’s Patron,” it will cost you $478.
     That’s insane.
     That’s two week’s income for a worker earning minimum wage, for books you could read in two weeks.
     There is no excuse for this.
     The new Arden edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works will set you back $27. That’s about 4 hours at minimum wage.
     One reason for this, of course, is that Shakespeare’s works are out of copyright. So the plays are cheap.
     Not that I begrudge the publishers this. Twenty-seven dollars for Shakespeare’s Works may be the best deal in the world today.
     But why does it cost $80 to buy a new book about Shakespeare?
     This is one of far too many instances of the elements of a basic education being priced out of the common man’s grasp.
     And sorry, I’m not being a snob by saying that cool new books about Shakespeare are, or should be, part of a common man’s education. The commoners loved Shakespeare. Always have, always will.
     I am not innocent in this, though I don’t think I’m guilty either. An academic press published my book on Beethoven last year – $45 in paperback, 170 pages.
     I wouldn’t pay that much for a paperback even if I wanted it.
     There is no excuse for the price of my book either. I sent them camera-ready copy, musical examples and all. I even wrote the index.
     There is no reason that book should cost $45. I worked on the damn thing for 30 years, but the publisher didn’t pay me to do it. I did it on my own.
     There is no excuse for the price, but there’s a reason for it. Academic publishers figure the only ones who will buy their books are a few libraries that feel they have to keep up on Beethoven, or Shakespeare, or whoever. So the publishers screw the libraries good and hard.
     Most pure science today is funded by the government, so when a university library buys a science book, for $200 or more, it’s recycling public money at a rarefied level.
     But if the government doesn’t fund science, and Shakespeare studies, they will wither away.
     Harvard librarian Robert Darnton, who ought to know, wrote recently: “In 1974 the average cost of a subscription to a journal was $54.86. In 2009 it came to $2,031 for a U.S. title and $4,753 for a non-U.S. title, an increase greater than ten times that of inflation.”
     A year’s subscription to the chemistry journal “Tetrahedron” costs $39,082. A year of “The Journal of Comparative Neurology” will set you back $27,465. Darnton added: “Profit margins of journal publishers in the fields of science, technology, and medicine recently ran to 30-40 percent; yet those publishers add very little value to the research process, and most of the research is ultimately funded by American taxpayers through the National Institutes of Health and other organizations.”
     I don’t expect many people to buy my Beethoven book, and I don’t blame them.
     Even books today – even paperbacks – demonstrate the institutionalized fraying of society, into a small group of people who don’t have to ask how much it costs, and all the rest of us. Including me. Who wouldn’t buy my own book, except the publisher will sell it to me for half price.
     That sounds about right.

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