Words That Bite Back

I would classify myself as a binge reader. I love to read; I read fast, and I read copiously (this week I calculated I’ve read about 1000 pages, not counting my Bible readings, what I read online, or the back of Kleenex boxes). I love pretty or clever turns of phrase, and I love writers who do gorgeous things with words. When I find a particularly delicious bit of wordplay, I’m prone to use it myself, such as when I was reading The Chronicles of Narnia to Hannah and used the phrase “like billy-oh” for quite a while thereafter.

I recently read about Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan’s debut novel “How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life” and the plagiarism allegations she’s facing. There are many passages in her novel that seem to lift almost directly from two books written by Megan McCafferty. First of all, the concepts of the books are nearly identical (brainy girl wants to get into Harvard, realizes she has good grades but nothing else to recommend her, decides to get a life to raise her chances of getting accepted, etc), but that’s nothing new in the publishing world. Viswanathan contends that she loved McCafferty’s books while in high school and must have internalized McCafferty’s words while writing her own novel. She has defended herself eloquently, but that’s no more than what I would expect from a Harvard student, even undergrad.

What’s up with young smart kids and plagiarism lately? In another example, young Red State blogger Ben Domenech recently had to resign from the Washington Post blogrolls for instances where he did not correctly attribute quotes, making them seem like his own original thoughts. I wonder if these people did know what they were doing, or if their mistakes really were unintentional?

I wonder if I would be at risk of doing the same thing if I ever get around to writing a book? As I said above, I do tend to adopt phrases and words I read, and I’ve read some books so many times (I think I’ve read Jane Eyre eight times, and I had read the Little House on the Prairie series fifteen times by the time I hit third grade, and after that I stopped counting) but I don’t think I’ve memorized entire passages. I hope I would not take entire sentences and paragraphs from other authors, but I wonder how one guards against that? Surely authors in the past were even more widely read than my generation, but they didn’t seem to have this problem.

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