Well versed in textured poetic prose and law review articles

For Lewis Hyde, reading is work, but it is work that he finds pleasurable. For Lewis Hyde, reading is work, but it is work that he finds pleasurable. (Larry Hamil/ Kenyon College)
By Amanda Katz
Globe Correspondent / January 23, 2011

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Lewis Hyde’s latest book, “Common as Air,” examines the American cultural commons — and how we negotiate clashes between the values of shared intellectual capital and ownership of expression. Hyde, whose publications include a noted work on mythology and mischief, “Trickster Makes This World,” as well as poetry and translations from Spanish, teaches writing and literature at Kenyon College and serves as a faculty associate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He divides his time between Ohio and Cambridge, where he was born. He will speak at the Cambridge Forum on Wednesday.

In your research for “Common as Air,” what texts did you find interesting or even beautiful?

I read more law review articles than are healthy for any man to read. But I read many wonderful things. There’s a man named William Alford, who’s written about the history of owning ideas in China. Many of my colleagues at the Berkman Center have done useful, interesting, well-written things — for example, Yochai Benkler.

The other thing was to read the founders. The phrase intellectual property didn’t exist in the 18th century. And yet they understood about owning printed works and patenting inventions. There are notes by James Madison on monopolies, and letters of Thomas Jefferson’s, and John Adams’s earliest political essay. These were all very helpful. And these people knew how to write.

Do you think the principles they put forward hold true?

I do, actually. What I tried to do was to think about the ends toward which we make up rules about owning things. For the founders, one of the ends was democratic self-governance — how to have a nation where people would be well enough informed to govern themselves.

Do you see reflections of universal mythology in the founders’ writing?

My definition of mythology is that it is the stories by which we make sense of our world, and of our motives and our suffering. Within that broad a definition, every culture has its own mythology. There is a myth of America, and the founders were involved in its earliest iteration.

What threads are you pursuing in your current reading?

I’m reading about memory and forgetting. There’s a wonderful essay by a man named Bruce Lincoln, called “Waters of Memory, Waters of Forgetfulness.” He takes a set of Indo-European mythologies about memory and forgetting, mostly having to do with what happens to memories when people die, and imagines an aboriginal Indo-European myth.

What’s drawing you to these themes?

Oh, I’m getting ready for my own dementia. And I’m hoping to write something — something fragmentary. I’m looking for a different style.

Who are stylistic models for your previous nonfiction books?

I’ve always been interested in poets who are forced into writing prose but do not abandon their poetic sensibilities. Their writing tends to have more of a willingness to describe the world metaphorically.

When I was an undergraduate, I was very much struck by García Lorca’s essay on the duende. Or people like W.B. Yeats, or Czeslaw Milosz. Or D.H. Lawrence, when he writes critically.

What kinds of books do you read for pleasure?

I have been interested in the David Markson books lately. W.G. Sebald I’m very fond of, and Lydia Davis.

What are you looking for in writing that you find in those authors’ work?

I’m looking for things that enchant me sentence by sentence, so that the texture of each sentence is what compels you. I’m less interested in reading for plot.

People sometimes make a distinction between reading for work and pleasure. Reading, for me, is work, and the work is pleasurable. If I’m reading completely casually, I read the newspaper.

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