Finding a Digital Public Domain Book

elmira carnegie 2
DRM-Free LabelAn avid Public Library user asked me if there was some way to access the book “Daddy Long Legs” by Jean Webster without having to submit to the Library’s Overdrive system.  My friend believes this book was published around 1912, which places it squarely in the Public Domain.

(This is not to single out any particular library… my understanding is that “Public Libraries” all seem to have fallen into the thrall of Overdrive… I’ll blog about why people might want to avoid the odious Overdrive and DRM later.)

Any number of “free websites” like Public Bookshelf allow you to read online so they can serve you ads:

Daddy Long-Legs by Jean Webster cover (1912)For myself, I prefer to go the free-as-in-freedom route.  The first place to look for any Public Domain digital book is online at the awesome Project Gutenberg

PG has been digitizing books since the 1970’s, so they have a very good selection.  Sure enough, PG does have “Daddy Long-Legs” which you can:

(1) read online, or

(2) download

  • in the Kindle proprietary format or
  • in the free eBook standard ePub, which can be read with any ePub reader on any digital device, or
  • in Plain Text.

Plain Text can be read in your computer’s text reader (Notepad or Geddit etc.)

If you don’t know if you have an ePub Reader, the one everyone can use is FBReader, the Free and Gratis ePub reader I know will work on windows, mac, GNU/linux, tablets/phones etc  Download it free/gratis at  (I am pretty sure this is the reader that comes native with the Calibre eBook conversion software.]

Mary Pickford“Daddy Long Legs” is a famous classic, so you can also download it:

  1. as a digital audio book free/gratis from Librevox []
  2. where it is actually stored on Internet Archive  []
  3. or you can listen to the whole Librivox ebook on YouTube
  4. If you prefer movies, you can watch Mary Pickford in the 1919 Public Domain movie on YouTube
  5. which you can also download from Internet Archive

[There are also what I presume to be copyright encumbered film versions, like the Fred Astaire musical version:
and the 1970s animated version:
Either of these would be illegal to copy if they are still in copyright… they may or may not be; but it would take research to find out for sure, so until you know either way,it is always safest to assume the worst.]

If you are looking for digital Public Domain books, the best place to get them is not from the Public Library.  The problem is that even Public Domain books that library patrons acquire through Overdrive come  encumbered with DRM and/or  TOS requirements.

against DRM (cc by Nina Paley)In these days of copyright insanity, we at least ought to be able to access unencumbered Public Domain work.  Why should some faceless corporate entity have the right to tell us what we can or can’t do with works in the Public Domain… because the Public Domain belongs to the public– and that’s you and me.

For future reference, when you’re looking for Public Domain material, always check the free-as-in-freedom & gratis Project Gutenberg, Project Gutenberg and Librivox, because they very often have them.  (And, if you’ve a little extra time on your hands, these wonderful public service organizations are always in the market for volunteers.)

waterloo library


censorship and children

Parents protect their children.   As a parent, I censored what my child was exposed to.

grandmother holds toddler
What if grandma heard him say the F-word?

I protected my child from the information or reality that he was not able to handle.

He was probably in the first grade the first time he saw the classic movie
A Christmas Story.”
Naturally, it made him desperate to know what Ralphie’s “F-word” was.

My argument:

Once known, this word of power might be used inappropriately.

At school, say.

Or at Grandma’s… She would be horrified.

And when Grandma asks where he learned this word, he would have to say:

“Mommy taught me that word”

I don’t think so.

black and white publicity still portrait of the named Dog character from Tim Burton's short film of the same name
'Frankenweenie' was our substitute F-Word

His argument:

he just wants to know.

He will not use it inappropriately. In fact, he promises faithfully never to say it, if only I tell him.

Was he mature enough to abide by this agreement?
My greater life experience inclined me toward disbelief.

So I told him the word was


Having just vowed to ‘never’ use the word,
naturally the first thing out of his mouth was “Frankenweenie.”

So there was some vindication in my decision to censor.

(He did, of course, learn how to both say and spell the actual “F word” when it was spray painted on the wall of his elementary school a year later.
Only then was it safe to show him the Tim Burton classic Frankenweenie film.)

But as a parent, there were things I knew would disturb him. Being in tune with my child, I was uniquely positioned to have a good idea what protection was necessary. For instance, in the early years, good guys could never die. As he grew and learned acquired the ability to protect himself, the terms of censorship changed. Before he was 18 he had acquired enough maturity that external parental censorship was no longer necessary.

Of course I never did show him Old Yeller, a film that traumatized me as a child. Just seeing a commercial for it makes me burst into tears to this day.

rewriting history is a bad idea

Although there is a time to protect children, I thoroughly disagree with the practice of rewriting literature to “protect” children.

The very famous examples of this kind of “politically correct” censorship are William Shakespeare’s “A Merchant of Venice” and Mark Twain’s ‘Huckleberry Finn‘.

The portrayal of the Jewish moneylender Shylock caused offense to a great many forward thinking people. In an era of political correctness many schools banned the play from the curriculum.

The “N-word” caused the same fate for Huckleberry Finn. Even worse, liberal minded people thought a reasonable compromise was to change the text. Rewrite it to make it ‘suitable’ for children.

One of the great philosophers who influenced my adolescence was Lazarus Long. To this day it doesn’t matter to me that he was a fictional character.

A generation which ignores history has no past: and no future. ”

—Lazarus Long, The Notebooks of Lazarus Long (reprinted in Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein), QUOTES ABOUT HISTORY

Rewiting history doesn’t change what has come before. It merely serves to prevent any possibility of learning from the mistakes of the past. Personally, I have always learned best from my mistakes. I was horrified to hear that revisionism was extending to Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. Seems everything that was a ‘bad influence’ was redacted. Look around. Has the world become a better place for it? I don’t think so.

Huckleberry Finn

black & white stidio portrait of Mark Twain, 1909 photograph by A.F. Bradley
Mark Twain, 1909

Personally I never much liked Tom Sawyer. Sorry folks, I think Tom was a creep. He’s dishonest, venal, manipulative. Even his friends can’t trust the guy.

Now, Huck Finn, there’s a character I can get behind. I admired Huck. Maybe because he came from nothing, he is one of the least judgemental characters in literature. Certainly one of the most egalitarian. Yet some people wanted to remove the N-word from the world. How can you teach a book that uses the N-word to impressionable children?

Easy. You TEACH children. You talk about it.
What a wonderful opportunity to talk about what people said and did back then.

Removing the “N-word” is a small obscenity in a book that includes a big obscenity called slavery. Contrast that with the good in the book. A central part of the story is the incredible friendship between Huckleberry Finn and his friend Jim.  That was unheard if in the day.   Huckleberry Finn is a wonderful book capable of engaging empathy, and changing the way people think.   Watering it down into a politically correct revision helps no one.   Teaches nothing.

A Merchant of Venice

Copper engraving of Shakespeare found on Title page of the First Folio
William Shakespeare, 1623

A smash hit at a time when Jews were prohibited from full citizenship in Elizabethan England.

Religion permeated the laws of the land at that time. Usury was illegal for Christians… that meant Christians could not charge interest on loans. The net result was that Christians with money were singularly unwilling to loan money to strangers for business start-ups or investments. This was particularly rough on the economy.

Although prevented from holding many jobs or owning land, Jews were legally allowed to lend money. Charging interest was one of the few sources of legitimate income available to a Jew in England in Shakespeare’s day.

Looked at in the context of the times, it is incredible that Shakespeare was able to write and produce a play in which a Jew could hold such an important part.
Certainly in some ways Shylock is a caricature, but everything he does and says is perfectly understandable in the historical context.

Even more importantly, he delivers some of the most powerful dialogue ever to address the issue of racism:

If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh?
if you poison us, do we not die? “

–Shylock, William Shakespeare’s A Merchant of Venice

Shylock made Jews real. You might not like him, but there is no question of his humanity. And although Shylock is the villain of the piece, his daughter Jessica is also a Jew. Of course Jessica is quite ready to throw away her heritage to be accepted in the wider world in which she lives. Just like any normal girl.

Huckleberry Finn frontispiece preserved by Project Gutenberg, illustration by E.W. Kemple 1884

What an amazing window into history. What an incredible opportunity to discuss perception, religion, race and even human rights. What better place to deal with it but within the education system. Banning “A Merchant of Venice” teaches that it’s best to sweep what we don’t like under the carpet.

That doesn’t address problems, or overcome them. When we bury a social problem like racism, we just drive it underground.
When that happens, it is almost inevitable that it will gather force in the dark, and come back as a more resistant strain.
We need to look racism in the eye and say “that’s wrong.”
If we don’t, it grows and spreads.

How has the world changed since Martin Luther King Jr.‘s day?

I suspect Dr. King would not be happy to see so many citizen protections that existed even before his Civil Rights movement have been curtailed. I kind of think Dr. King would prefer to see a little more citizen protection. I can’t imagine he would be glad to see the erosion of civil rights he fought for.

Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

– George Santayana, QUOTES ABOUT HISTORY

Image credit: Fair use of black & white publicity Frankenweenie still portrait of named title character from the early Tim Burton short film.

A.F. Bradley’s 1909 Photograph of Mark Twain, internationally available in the public domain, downloaded from WikiMedia Commons.

From Wikipedia Public Domain engraving of William Shakespeare, Title page of the First Folio, by William Shakespeare, with copper engraving of the author by Martin Droeshout. Image courtesy of the Elizabeth Club and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Project Gutenberg’s preservation of the Public Domain work Huckleberry Finn provided this E.W. Kemble frontispiece illustration of Huck from 1884

CC is for Creator’s Choice

I am amazed at how quickly technology has progressed to the point where we have the tools to inexpensively create and share all types of media.   I think we may be at the point where the most expensive aspect of creating a piece of artistic media is the human labour.   When I went to school for Media Arts (film, video, audio, a/v) that certainly was not the case. The equipment was expensive: we could sign out Nagra sync sound recorders that I recall cost a great many thousands of dollars, particularly for struggling students. But the cost of Film stock was very very expensive.


Which is why I was so incredibly impressed with filmmaker Robert Rodriguez‘ Cinderella tale of becoming a feature film director. His ingenuity allowed him to make El Mariachi for much less than the going rate of making a movie trailer.

film maker Robert Rodriguez in stubble, camo & a baseball cap at a press function

Rebel without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player was terrific.  Not just because the book is as well written a “making of” as you’re likely to find, but because young Rodriguez figured out how to become a feature film maker by thinking outside the box. He bypassed the crushing weight of the most expensive part of film making: the cost of film stock and prints for distribution.

[Even cooler, Rodriguez was willing to talk about it and share his insights with other filmmakers in an attempt to help those coming after.]

As it happens, the digital revolution which followed substantially lowered the barriers to entry and today digital imaging is the next thing to free. Movie theaters are switching to digital transmission for the same reasons.

[Note to filmmakers: You can still learn lots about film making from Robert Rodriguez’ Film School Shorts.]


The singers squeezed into the control booth dominated by a massive mixing board, manned by sound technicians.

It used to cost tens of thousands or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of dollars to outfit a music recording studio.  So naturally cutting a record was a pricey affair.

Once all the tracks were laid down and mixed you had the associated costs of artwork, pressing and distribution. An expensive proposition.

But just like the film world, media technology has gone digital and today, if you’re organized, it is possible to cut a full length commercial CD in a professional studio for around a thousand dollars. A tech savvy musician can DIY commercial quality product in their basement for next to nothing.

the written word

Big changes are afoot in the world of newspapers and magazines.   It used to be that the only market for short fiction and nonfiction articles used to be newspapers and magazines (with the occasional second life collected in book form). Like the music and movie industries, magazines and newspapers were in business by virtue of owning the infrastructure (print facilities and distribution).

Syd Field Screenplay ORIGINAL cover art

The same was true of book publication. Certainly publishers have editorial staff. They employ readers and editors and typesetters. One of the best books I’ve read on screenwriting was written by Syd Field, a Hollywood reader who distilled what he learned as a reader into practical writing advice in a book called Screenplay.

The editorial staff edits and assembles the product. One important function they have traditionally provided was to filter out the very best material.  And never forget that the addition of editorial input often improved the work.   Traditionally there has been lots of expertise in the publishing industry, but the bottom line was always that the guy who owns the presses and the distribution network is the guy in charge. The most brilliant book editor could always be over ruled by the publisher. (Or the publisher’s girlfriend.)

There is great deal of turmoil in all types of publishing today as the entire world has been altered by the Internet and the accompanying technology.

media evolution

In real terms this media revolution– not just for film or music but photography, writing, software and art– really anything that can be digitally reproduced — has made it possible for pretty much anyone to be a media creator. The monetary costs involved boil down to the initial outlay necessary for equipment and digital storage. After that the outlay is minimal

I remember when a blank video tape cost $20. That could hold one movie you taped off TV.   Of course that was back in the day when the cable companies encouraged Canadians to use this new technology to “time shift.” Today that’s one of the many diverse activities that are lumped together under the umbrella label of ‘piracy.’

The Nightengale and the Rose - One of the many public domain books preserved in a digital format and released without restriction by Project Gutenberg

About ten years ago or so I remember my sister had an unimaginably huge hard drive – far and away the largest of anyone I knew — on her computer. Today that 2 gigabyte drive is laughably tiny. At this point 2 gigabyte flash drives are routinely used to transport assignments between school and home (and probably at the low end).

And now I just read Michael Hart‘s observation about his seventy five dollar “terabyte pocket drive” (for books digitized by Project Gutenberg) that is:

no larger and not much heavier than a book, and it will hold 2.5 million such books in .zip format.”

Project Gutenberg: Timeline Events

One of the interesting things I’ve learned about recently from Wayne Borean’s excellent series on Copyright in his Through the Looking Glass blog, where Wayne describes this kind of revolutionary technology that changes the way the world functions as a “Disruptive Technological Change“.

Add the Internet to the mix and you have a perfect distribution medium that’s virtually free.
[With the proviso that net neutrality is protected Internet access won’t be degraded via ‘throttling’ and and carrier/ISPs won’t be able to price it out of the range of ordinary people with Usage Based Billing.]

This means we’re living in a world where we can all create.

Under Canadian copyright law any art we create is automatically protected under copyright law.

Since we all have the ability to be both content creators and distributors as well as content consumers, every citizen needs to have a say in the copyright debate and the eventual revision to our copyright laws.

Copyright = All Rights Reserved

copyright symbol - letter c in a circle
all rights reserved

The thing about art and culture is that it is for sharing.   I can’t think of any art in any medium that is created out of a vacuum. Everything is built on something else. This has been going on since the beginning of time.   Before we had written words, verbal histories were handed down.

We are all informed by our culture; all creators are influenced by others.   Everything we learn, everything we see, hear, feel and touch goes into our experience pool and will have an effect on our creations.    Shakespeare’s plays are re-mixes of other works,  and today we would call the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tale aggregators.    In their day they had to physically travel all aver Europe to gather up all the best stories.   Today we just need a good search engine and enough bandwidth to get it done.

Teacher Raffaella Traniello holds up some movie making tools A standing joke firmly rooted in reality is that the only way to sell a movie idea to Hollywood is by comparing it to another.

And have you ever noticed that an overwhelming majority of Disney theatrical feature films are based on stories in the public domain?

Corporate agendas have been pushing for increasingly rigorous copyright law, detrimental to creators.   What’s good for a corporation that controls copyright is not necessarily good for the artists who created the copyright work. As a creator I think copyright terms we have alone in Canada are seriously detrimental to creators.

Creative Commons logoWhich is why I am extremely grateful for the development of Creative Commons Licenses that offer creators a variety of alternatives.

Creative Commons licensing is a marvelous tool that allows creators to get around the detrimental and restrictive aspects of copyright law. Creators can release their work in the way that they want to.

The reason I love Raffaella Traniello’s film so much is  because it does such a good job getting the message across.   Every song I’ve heard, every movie I’ve watched, every picture I’ve seen, every bit of  art I’ve ever been exposed to, everything that has danced across my senses has been absorbed and makes me who I am.   The creativity of others has become part of my life experience, and as it’s distilled through my unconscious and forms the basis of my own creativity.   No art comes out of a vacuum;  it collaborates with a culture.  Art needs to share and be shared, which is why I believe that the current copyright law has already gone too far.

Creative Commons License = Some Rights Reserved

Creative Commons logo: cc inside a circle
Some Rights Reserved

Creative Commons defines the spectrum of possibilities between full copyright and the public domain. From all rights reserved to no rights reserved. Our licenses help you keep your copyright while allowing certain uses of your work — a “some rights reserved” copyright.

What is CC

Copyright terms constrain other creators.

I try to generate all the images for all my own blogs, but sometimes that simply isn’t possible.   At this point with everything that’s happening in copyright law around the world, I’m less inclined to want to use “fair dealing” images; particularly as what is covered may well change.  So any time I do an image search,  I search for Creative Commons licensed Images. When searching either Google Images or Flickr Images you can select “advanced search” and choose “labeled for reuse”. Most if not all images in Wikimedia Commons are released under a CC license. And now the Creative Commons search page can direct your searches as well.

Creative Commons Attribution Symbol

Attribution (cc by)

This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered, in terms of what others can do with your works licensed under Attribution.

Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike Symbol

Attribution Share Alike (cc by-sa)

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial reasons, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use.

Boy Mouse says to Mouse girl who is fixing equipment, Hallo Fräulein, könnten Sie mich wohl zu einem Techniker bringen?

Creative Commons Attribution No Derivatives

Attribution No Derivatives (cc by-nd)

This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.


Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial

Attribution Non-Commercial (cc by-nc)

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.

CD cover art - bearded guitar playing caricature

Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial Sharealike

Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike (cc by-nc-sa)

This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. Others can download and redistribute your work just like the by-nc-nd license, but they can also translate, make remixes, and produce new stories based on your work. All new work based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also be non-commercial in nature.

Plaster heads of 7 world leaders assembled on the grass

Creative Commons Button indicating Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivative License

Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives (cc by-nc-nd)

This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, allowing redistribution. This license is often called the “free advertising” license because it allows others to download your works and share them with others as long as they mention you and link back to you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.

Creative Common Licenses don’t replace copyright law, they work in conjunction with existing copyright law.

A Creative Commons licenses allow creators to tailor the license to balance their comfort level with the needs of their project.

The greatest thing about Creative Commons Licensing is that it gives choices back to creators.

Image Credit:

Robert Rodriguez photograph under a Attribution Sharealike ( by Thomas Crenshaw

Lynn Russwurm’s photograph “The Laurie Bauer Singers in recording studio – circa 1970s” used with permission

Raffaella Traniello video under an Attribuzione 2.5 Italia license

Charles Robinson illustration of Oscar Wilde’s “The Nightengale and the Rose” is in the public domain; one of many great works preserved via digitization by Project Gutenberg

Cory Doctorow” photograph by Joi Ito under a CC attribution (cc by) license

Sita Sings the BluesNina Paley – Creative Commons CC BY-SA

“Hallo Fräulein” cartoon oreillyblog cartoon (CC) BY-ND dyfa 2009

Ahead Stop image by XKCD. CC BY-NC 2.5

Performous Songs: Jonathan Coulton Collection available for legal download ZIP file (240 MB)under Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial Share Alike License (cc by-nc-sa) via Performous Songs

“Big Heads” aka The Oxfam G8 Big Heads at Big Letters Performance by Oxfam (by-nc-nd)

Google Book Search OPT OUT letter: WRITERS

Thanks to Sarah Sheard’s Writers Round Up and her links to the American National Writers Union I have just learned about the infamous Google Book search settlement.  
(Out of touch: who me?)

If the Corporate Copyright Lobby has their way nothing from Mickey Mouse onward will ever enter the public domain.   So the thought of slapping copyright on material that is already in the public domain is repugnant to me.   I knew had heard that Google was scanning public domain books and making the resulting digitized version available under Google copyright.   I thought that was bad, but at the same time it is better than having books lost forever. [Note: Robert Shaw has corrected this error on my part. I’ve just downloaded one of Google’s digitized public domain books and it does not in fact carry a Google copyright. There is a cover letter where Google lays down the ground rules, and the document is apparently watermarked.

Myself I much prefer the wonderful Project Gutenberg, which scans books and makes them available to everyone everywhere absolutely free online without copyright.

Art from "The Nightingale and the Rose, one of my favorite Oscar Wilde stories."
Digitizing public domain work for the common good.

But that is not all Google is doing:

1. What is the Google Book Search (GBS) lawsuit about?

Since 2004, Google has been scanning the entire collections of several major libraries, without asking for or obtaining permission from the authors or other copyright owners.

Copyright "c"Google scans entire books and other works, converts the scans from images to text, indexes them, and republishes them for profit by including “snippets” from scanned books in results of Google searches and selling ads on these search result pages.   None of the money from these ads goes to the author or copyright holder, even if someone searches for a quotation from your book, poem, etc., or all the search results on the page with the ads come from your book.

The Authors Guild (without consulting or involving the NWU or any other writers’ organization) and the Association of American Publishers (which represents major New York commercial publishers) sued Google in federal court in New York for copyright infringement.   Their lawsuit was provisionally certified as a class action on behalf of all authors and publishers anywhere in the world whose works were scanned by Google.

National Writers Union FAQ about the revised Google Book Search copyright infringement settlement proposal

The original settlement got so much flack from so many countries that this new settlement has been scaled back so that the only countries it will be inflicted on are Australia, Canada, and the USA.   Perhaps if we make enough of a fuss this settlement will also be quashed.

Sarah Sheard has mounted a Canadian Writers’ Petition in an effort to attempt to stop the settlement, particularly for Canadians.

Every Canadian writer should sign, published or not.

This petition can help achieve the best possible outcome: for the settlement to be denied.   (There are many American writers organizations vigorously fighting against this settlement as well.)   Should the court approve this settlement it will be binding on American, Australian and Canadian writers.   The time frame to do anything is ridiculously short, as the decision will be made after submissions stop being accepted on January 28th, 2010.

The American National Writers Union provides a list of options, including my favorite, which is to opt out of the settlement.   By opting out you deny Google the opportunity to take control of your work; you retain your rights.   Even though I have not yet finished my novel, I will, because I plan to self publish it and many more.

The NWU provides a sample letter for writers to use.   Even though it was not a PDF it was read-only for my computer, so I’ve taken the liberty of re-typing it here to make it easy for writers to use with simple cut and pasting.


Office of the Clerk of the Court
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of N.Y.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse
500 Pearl Street
New York, NY 10007-1312

Re: The Authors Guild, Inc., et al. v. Google Inc., No. 05CV 8136

By this letter, I opt out of the proposed settlement in this case. I am opting out of both the “Author Sub-Class” and the “Publisher Sub-Class,” and out of the settlement in its entirety.

I have written and/or published works under names including, but not limited to, the following variant spellings, forms, pen names and pseudonyms:

My works include, but are not limited to the following:

I am opting out because



cc: Google Book Search Settlement Administrator
c/o Rust Consulting
P.O. Box 9364
Minneapolis, MN
USA 55440-9364

[Optional copies for Google, print publishers, and the Authors Guild:]

Michael J. Boni, Esq.
Joanne Zack, Esq.
Joshua Snyder, Esq.
Boni & Zack LLC
15 St. Asaphs Rd.
Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004

Jeffrey P. Cunard, Esq.
Bruce P. Keller, Esq.
Debevoise & Plimpton LLP
919 Third Avenue
New York, NY 10022

Daralyn J. Durie, Esq.
Joseph C. Gratz, Esq.
Durie Tangri Lemley Roberts & Kent LLP
32 Pine Street, Ste. 200
San Francisco, CA 94104

Exercising A Middle Aged Brain

[This blog post is dedicated to Mr. Collins, my Grade 10 EDSS English Teacher, with thanks.]

High School

It was routine for me to be juggling six books at any given time when I was in high school.   Several would be sandwiched between my school books, so if I had a few minutes between classes I could open any of them and know exactly where I was in the narrative.   This was the reading equivalent of cat naps, cat reading allowed me to read a lot.   Even better — I retained what I read.


Mr. Collins reprinted from the yearbookIn the tenth grade I had a terrible English teacher who also happened to be a great guy.

Maybe Mr. Collins wasn’t really a terrible teacher, maybe it’s just that Grade 10 English was exceptionally awful for me since it was an entire year of grammar. (It sure seemed that way!)

Naturally I loved the Grade 9 teacher who only gave us three days of grammar.   But then, Grade 10 English might not have been so bad if I’d had the grade 9 foundation of grammar necessary to handle the tenth grade curriculum.   Even worse, I had absolutely no motivation to learn the rules of grammar.   What was the point?   Because I was a reader I was capable of intuitively following the rules of English grammar in much the same way people drive cars without having a clue how internal combustion engines work.  

I thought grammar was a terrible waste of English class time… we might have been reading all the great classics — but instead we were learning about dangling participles.   To this day I don’t know what a dangling participle is, and what’s more I don’t care. But the curriculum said we had to learn it.

Hmmm…. maybe Mr. Collins was actually a very good English teacher.   Mr. Collins helped me to not fail tenth grade English. (It was really close.)   Somehow Mr. Collins convinced me to try.

Part of the curriculum was having to memorize poetry.   I simply did not want to waste the time and brain cells memorizing poetry I didn’t like.   This is another example of where Mr. Collins proved to be a great guy; instead of forcing me to clutter up my head with poetry I did not like, he allowed me to memorize poetry I DID like.   I will be forever grateful for that… particularly since it is still stored safely in my memory to this day….

Close up of Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn from Lord of the Rings movie poster
Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn in Peter Jackson's movie trilogy Lord of the Rings

All that is gold does not glitter
Not all those who wander are lost
The old that is strong does not wither
Deep roots are not touched by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from the darkness shall spring
Renewed shall be the blade
                                         that was broken
The crownless again shall be king”

–J.R.R. Tolkien
Lord of the Rings

I have NOT checked the text so a word or two may have drifted or otherwise altered in my memory since I first memorized Lord of the Rings poetry for English classes more than 30 years ago, but just typing it out now I still get shivers.  

Another time my friend Carole and I each took over a wall of blackboard and held an impromptu longest run-on-sentence competition.   Can’t remember who won, just that it was fun.   Not too many teachers would have been cool enough to let us go nuts all over his blackboards.

Thanks Mr. C.


My mind was abuzz with all the new ideas and attitudes I was being exposed to in the wider world, I was lucky to find the time to read six recreational books a year.   Thinking, feeling, experiencing, pushing the envelope.   Lots of exercise for a young brain.

Working Girl

When working as an assistant story editor in the Hot Shots story department my brain did the job that IMDB does now… I could rhyme off the plots and credits from pretty much every movie or TV show I’d ever seen.   I accepted this ability to be able to remember and retrieve the necessary information as needed as natural.   I even started memorizing frequently needed work phone numbers.

I thought there was no end to it.

Brain Full

Until the day I moved and simply could not remember my own new phone number.

Jello Brain

Suddenly it became clear that my memory storage capacity was not infinite.   My brain was full.

I would get annoyed when I couldn’t recall things that I thought I should be able to remember.   My husband would laugh when I’d come back from shopping without the specific item I’d gone to get. He said my memory had just become more like a normal person’s memory. (Well, his.)   His point was that I used to have a better than average memory. This did not make it any less frustrating however.

confessions of a middle aged brain

It’s taken time for me to come to come to accept my aging memory functions, my brain falls within the “middle age” parameters.

“The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture.   If kept in good shape, the brain can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can.”

Barbara Strauch, New York Times Article:
How to Train the Aging Brain

Barbara Strauch’s New York Times article is an interesting look at how older brains learn.   They don’t simply fall into disarray as was previously thought.   And although it can take longer, middle aged brains can in fact learn new tricks.

mental calisthenics

Several years back I bought some one inch ceramic letters on magnets to spell out our names.   It became a family game because whenever we’d have a chance we’d rearrange the letters into different words, so part of our fridge looked like a crossword puzzle or a scrabble board.

It was’t just fun, I could actually feel my brain working to come up with a better configuration of words or letters.   It got so that we all knew the possible words we could make, so it stopped being as much fun. The craft store I’d bought the letters from had closed down, so it was a while before I was able to increase our letter stash.

scrabble like arrangement of letters magnetized to refrigerator
The “HOUSE” theme on our fridge

Eventually I found another source of letters so we were able to expanded our alphabet so that we could create themed crosswords.   This enables the use of large words (like “diagnostician”) and we try to follow whatever theme emerges.   As the letters get used up eventually the idea simplifies, and the new objective is to use up all the letters.   I love this because it feels like calisthenics for the brain.

mock-up of cover art to promote public domain
Digital imaging to promote Project Gutenberg

A few years ago I plunged into the computer pool, learning to use Photoshop for digital photo restoration and then progressing into digital manipulation.   From a practical standpoint there is good and bad in that, since I am at the point where just about every photograph can be fixed.

The “bad part” being that just about every photograph can be fixed…. so I could spend the rest of my life fixing the photos I’ve already taken.

In some ways, digital imaging is similar to other creative work I’ve done in the past.   At the same time, there was an awful lot to learn that wasn’t.   Quite a bit of mental stretching necessary.   The new “middle age” brain research indicates that those of us with middle age brains can in fact learn new tricks, and in particular we do better by challenging our perceptions.

It seems I’ve been doing that inadvertently, learning how to code XHTML.   Without the awesome free HTML Dog online tutorials I doubt I’d have ever been able to get anywhere.   Although I bought Patrick Griffiths’ HTML Dog book for reference it was the online tutorials which actually helped me master this. Never in my wildest imaginings would I have thought I could manage the technical stuff of web page design. Still, it boggles my middle aged mind that I can read source code.

Then of course I’ve found myself drawn into the Usage Based Billing issue, which naturally led into the net neutrality issue, which in turn led to the copyright issue.

Copyright "c"The copyright issue was a particular challenge.   As a writer I wanted to participate in the Canadian government’s copyright consultation process.   Writing my copycon submission forced me to really think about it, sifting through the new ideas that turned the old way of thinking on its head.   Just as the article discusses, copyright challenged my established brain connections.

“The brain, as it traverses middle age, gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. ”

Barbara Strauch, New York Times Article
How to Train the Aging Brain

One of the reasons that Barbara Strauch’s article resonates with me personally is that it has helped me to understand what in many ways had seemed like magic more than logic.   It’s good to know that my copyright theories aren’t in fact the product of some magical alchemy.

My middle aged brain was able to assimilate many ideas proposed by others, assess policies and practices relating to copyright I’ve seen in my lifetime and combine this all with my own personal life experience to arrive at some startling conclusions.   Certainly I would never have come to any of these radical conclusions in my youth back in the day.   The world has changed and my middle aged brain has allowed me to step back and look at the big picture with startling clarity.

The science discussed in the article indicates that the divergences I’ve taken away from “normal” are probably why my brain feels much more agile than it has in years.   It is because I have been pushing my middle aged brain to learn and do such different things that allows it to continue its life long job of learning so that I can continue to learn and do such different things.

Who’d have thought.

[note: I read the New York Times article thanks to a sandynunn re-tweet. Thanks Sandy.]