A Week in Culture: Tim Wu, Professor, Part 2


The Culture Diaries

This is the second installment of Tim Wu’s culture diary. Click here to read part 1.


11:00 A.M., Amtrak, Washington, D.C. → New York City

Taking a break, I read P. G. Wodehouse, whose work I would call a guilty pleasure if I actually felt any guilt about it. Today, I read what must be one of his most brilliant stories, “The Story of Webster.” It is about a young Bohemian named Lancelot whose uncle, a disapproving Vicar, makes him take care of his cat while he is on missionary duty in Bongo Bongo.

The cat, it turns out is something of a proxy for the Vicar’s disapproval. “His eyes were clear and steady, and seemed to pierce to the very roots of the young man’s soul, filling him with a sense of guilt.” Lancelot cannot seem to ignore the pressure. Soon he has begun to shave daily, clean his apartment, and under the cat’s influence even ditches his fun-loving poetess girlfriend for a Miss Carberry-Pirbright, “a young woman of prim and glacial aspect.” All seems lost, until at the end the hero solves the problem in a way I won’t spoil.

2:50 P.M., Room 104, Jerome Green Hall, Columbia University

My copyright class today is about cultural appropriation, or more precisely, what a secondary author can and cannot do without the first author’s permission. We talk about the case of the Harry Potter Lexicon—a detailed encyclopedia of all things Potter, which J. K. Rowling declared an infringement of her authorial rights.

This year’s copyright class is a good crowd. I banned laptops, and class speaking is done standing so it has a performative aspect that adds intensity. It also doesn’t hurt that the underlying topic—authorship—is just interesting.

How authors react to works based on their work is unpredictable. Some authors take the existence of any secondary works as a sign of success. Others are hurt, even if the work is flattering. I tell the class about the day I watched Ms. Rowling on the witness stand, crying and saying that her life had lost meaning thanks to that nasty Lexicon.

8:00 P.M., Chelsea Theater

No one will go see Never Let Me Go with me so I have to go by myself. Everyone says it will ruin the book, which is among my favorites. I don’t think so.

Unfortunately, my friends were right. I tried to deny it for a while, but I think it did ruin the book. The problem, I think, was casting. Once you put Keira Knightly on the screen, the idea of using her and her friends for a cloning/organ-donation setup starts to seem implausible. She does not fit any conceivable idea of what an outcast looks like.

11:00 P.M., Satsko, East Village

Blondie playing. Ask bartender, “What are you up to tonight?” “Getting wasted.”

12:30 A.M., home, West Village

Some subjects for I Gotta Know: what happened to graffiti on New York subways; Masai warriors.


10:30 A.M., Grounded Café, West Village

At breakfast I read Franzen’s How To Be Alone. I remember picking the book up years ago and not liking it. Now I remember why. Despite the great title it reads like the speeches he puts in his characters mouths.

However, a new essay, “Mr. Difficult” is great. It’s on the attractions, respectively, of obtuse and popular writing. He writes:

It turns out that I subscribe to two wildly different models of how fiction relates to its audience. In one model … the best novels are great works of art … and if the average reader rejects the work it’s because the average reader is a philistine. In the opposing model, a novel represents a compact between the writer and the reader, with the writer providing words out which the reader creates a pleasurable experience.”

3:00 P.M., home, West Village

I do an interview with Vice Magazine. Based on the Web site I was expecting to, say, chop up a few beer cans with a sword and see how that goes.

Instead, a man named Alex Pasternack interviews me for an hour and forty minutes, the length of a feature film. It’s fun for a while but becomes exhausting. I do remember saying something along the lines of this: “Hannah Arendt theorized that every revolution is styled a counterrevolution. Today, every reactionary decision is styled a revolution.”

11:00 P.M., Kickstarter HQ, Lower East Side

For Halloween this year, I decide to dress as a Masai warrior. The Masai were very impressive in Kenya: the whole business of drinking blood and killing lions has a deep appeal. Unfortunately, I don’t look so much like them, but I do have the outfit, the sword, and I try on the attitude.

To me, the most interesting thing about Halloween is identity. Perhaps I am reading too much into Halloween, but choosing a costume is not unlike choosing a career. Because “Who are you” is not so dissimilar from “What do you do?”

In other words, you can gain a lot of freedom if you’re willing to sacrifice having easy answers.

At the party, I run into a woman who says she is the girlfriend of today’s interviewer, Mr. Pasternack. I tell her that the interview was good but very long. She says, “He’s not always so good with boundaries.”


9:30 A.M., home, West Village

I do a lot of reading after my mind wakes up but my body is unwilling to move (other than the effort of picking up a book). Kate is enrolled in Laughing Lotus school with Dana Flynn, so there are yoga books lying around everywhere. On the bedside table is T. K. V. Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga:

When we succeed in becoming so absorbed in something that our mind becomes completely one with it, we are in a state of Samadhi. In Samadhi our personal identity—name, profession, family history, bank account and so forth—completely disappears.

Thinking about my life, that actually happens quite a bit. It is usually, however, followed by someone shouting, “What were you thinking?”

2:50 P.M., Room 104, Jerome Green Hall, Columbia University

George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” and “She’s so Fine” by the Chiffons are note-by-note almost exactly the same song. Sued, Harrison testified that he came up with “My Sweet Lord” independently, just sitting with his guitar and strumming.

Relatedly, the Bee Gees were accused of stealing “How Deep is Your Love” from a musician named Ronald Selle in Chicago, whose song “Let It End” is strikingly similar. The Bee Gees argue that they wrote that the song in a French castle, and therefore couldn’t have copied from Selle. (They were in the castle pictured in this video for “Stayin’ Alive.”) I am struck by the size of Barry Gibbs’s teeth.

The problem is that Mr. Selle and his small band had only performed the song at several bar mitzvahs in the Chicago area, so even if the song is the same song it is hard to see how the Bee Gees got access to it. A student raises his hand and says, “But the Bee Gees were Jewish!”

6:00 P.M., home, West Village

By the magic of shuffle I discover, bolting upright in my seat, that Alvin and the Chipmunks have found their way into my iTunes library. They come on after Leonard Cohen, which augments the shock. That’s what I get for ripping music off my wife’s old iPod, or more precisely, her ex-boyfriend’s iPod.

10:00 P.M., home, West Village

Foursquare is a cell-phone app that you can use to keep track of where your friends are. It is sometimes useful, but the designers have a creepy habit of congratulating you for using their product. The other day I “unlocked” a level and got this e-mail:

Great work. Keep it up!

—Your friends @ foursquare

Great work? Keep it up? Did I sign up for WeightWatchers by mistake?

This experience reminds me of Nick Bilton’s book, I Live in the Future, which I read two weeks ago. Bilton is a talented futurist, and one thing that impressed me was that he managed to be consistently optimistic about technologies like Twitter and Foursquare—technologies that are often annoying. On the other hand, I suppose that hating technology might be disqualifying for a tech blogger, something akin to hiring Christopher Hitchens to teach Sunday School.


10:00 A.M., Grounded Cafe, West Village

Under the influence of “Mr. Difficult,” I begin reading Gravity’s Rainbow, which I’ve had around the house for years. The size of the book and its tiny print give me the sense it might be “difficult.” The book begins with a quote from Wernher von Braun:

Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.

After that it does get difficult. It’s written in a kind of jumpy prose; there are dozens of characters, a large banana breakfast, and a giant adenoid wandering around London, and lots of “nubile women.” It is written as a series of scenes that lack a clear connection, other than a texture of dirtiness, weariness, and sexiness. In other words, it’s not bad. Reflecting on “Mr. Difficult,” I start to wonder why it should matter at all whether I finish the book or not, or even read it sequentially. It doesn’t seem like the author cares so much.

7:00 P.M., home of Jacob Weisberg & Deborah Needleman, Tribeca

Tonight, I throw a book party for my new book. Against the considered advice of many friends, I’ve engaged an all-girls drumming band named Chica Vas to play at the party.

My theory is that New York book parties are sometimes too static—nothing but talk—and that pounding drums may break things up a bit. At a minimum, it’ll give people something to either like or hate, and in my experience partygoers want one, the other, or both.

The band plays from an internal balcony twenty feet in the air. They are wearing feathers and lots of shine and are joined for a while by Lily, Deborah and Jacob’s daughter. In what may be the highlight of my year, for one song, I sing with the band, at least for the chorus.

12:00 A.M., home, West Village

Subjects for I Gotta Know: fastest steam trains ever; Chinese checkers.

Tim Wu is the author of The Master Switch, a professor at Columbia Law School, and a contributing writer at Slate.