The fun on today's Times corrections page never stops. Ben Schott's March 4 back-matter essay "Confessions of a Book Abuser" (which—irony alert—we've honored previously in the "most bizarre ethical distinction" T.M.I. category) apparently cribs ideas and a whole, highly specific anecdote from Anne Fadiman's "Never Do that to a Book," part of her 1998 essay collection Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. No, people don't read much no more, but we sure love to know about destroying culture, one trade paperback at a time; unfortunately Schott's methods were rather too similar to Fadiman's, and neither involved the thermodynamic constant 451 deg F. When they weren't awkwardly wrestling/awkwardly making out with n+1, the lit blogs have been on the Schott story for a while, and now the Times comes clean, sort of. Spicy details follow about the subconscious internalizations of European chambermaids.
The Times tries to downplay things with some "if this is plagiarism, then Schott's got ten fewer testicles than Kaavya" examples:
Among several thematic similarities that readers commented on are references to a system of dog-earing pages either at the top or at the bottom depending on referential purpose and to travelers who rip previously read sections from paperbacks and discard them before boarding an airplane.
I mean, you can do very little else vis-a-vis ripping apart books, right? Read on:
But the most striking resemblance occurs in the opening lines of each essay. Schott's begins: "I have to admit I was flattered when, returning to my hotel room on the shores of Lake Como, a beautiful Italian chambermaid took my hand. . . . Escorting me to the edge of the crisply made bed, the chambermaid pointed to a book on my bedside table. 'Does this belong to you?' she asked. I looked down to see a dog-eared copy of Evelyn Waugh's 'Vile Bodies' open spread-eagle, its cracked spine facing out. 'Yes,' I replied. 'Sir, that is no way to treat a book!' she declared, stalking out of the room."
Fadiman's essay begins: "When I was 11 and my brother was 13, our parents took us to Europe. At the H tel d'Angleterre in Copenhagen, as he had done virtually every night of his literate life, Kim left a book facedown on the bedside table. The next afternoon, he returned to find the book closed, a piece of paper inserted to mark the page, and the following note, signed by the chambermaid, resting on its cover:
"Sir, you must never do that to a book."
Ben's Times career may be schott, but at least he'll always have that super-hot adolescent memory/fantasy about a feather-dustered service-industry babe:
Questioned about the similarities, Schott, who has recently been contributing freelance work to The Times, said that he had never read Fadiman's essay before it was brought to his attention, also by a reader of the Book Review, and suggested that the thematic resemblances were a coincidental result of the narrowness of the topic. He maintains that the encounter with the Italian chambermaid took place as he described it, in 1989, when he was 15.
Had editors been aware of Fadiman's essay, the Book Review would not have published Schott's.
There could be an another explanation: Might there exist a cabal of literary-minded chambermaids out to chastise the barbarian reading practices of ugly-American boutique-hotel patrons? Might their ulterior motive be to undermine the New World's arts and letters by making the appearance of plagiarist shenanigans all but inevitable? Only the E.U. flaks in Brussels and perhaps the Cleverest and Most Enlightened Writer of All Time Jonathan Lethem knows for sure.