Skip to main content
Trade Books For Courses Tradebooks for Courses

Common as Air

Revolution, Art, and Ownership

Lewis Hyde

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

opens in a new window
opens in a new window Common as Air Download image

ISBN10: 0374532796
ISBN13: 9780374532796

Trade Paperback

352 Pages



Request Desk Copy
Request Exam Copy


Sign up to receive information about new books, author events, and special offers.

Sign up now

Suspicious of the current idea that all creative work is "intellectual property," Lewis Hyde turns to the nation's founding fathers in search of other ways to value the products of human imagination. In Common as Air, he offers a stirring defense of America's cultural commons, that vast store of art and ideas inherited from the past that continues to enrich the present. What Hyde discovers is a rich tradition in which knowledge was assumed to be a commonwealth, not a private preserve.

For men like John Adams, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, democratic self-governance itself demanded open and easy access to ideas. So did the growth of creative communities, such as that of eighteenth-century science. And so did the flourishing of public persons, the very actors whose "civic virtue" brought the nation into being.

In this engaging, carefully argued, and well-documented book, Hyde brings the past to bear on present matters, shedding fresh light on everything from the Human Genome Project to Bob Dylan's musical roots. Common as Air allows today's Americans to stand on the shoulders of this country's revolutionary giants and to see beyond today's narrow debates over cultural ownership. What it reveals is nothing less than an inspiring vision of how to reclaim the commonwealth of art and ideas that were meant to be inherited by the generations that follow.


Praise for Common as Air

"Drawing on deep historical research, Common As Air discusses the reasons why Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and their peers were wary of perpetual patents and copyrights. The Founders viewed them as state-sanctioned monopolies that deterred the progress of learning, creativity, and innovation. This is the reason why they carved out room in the U.S. Constitution for intellectual property, the first country to do so."—Kembrew McLeod, The Atlantic

"Lewis Hyde first came to attention in 1975 with an essay in American Poetry Review, "Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking." Partly inspired by Hyde's experiences as an alcoholism counselor, the piece has been widely reprinted . . . Now comes Common As Air, the most urgent and provocative of his three books . . . In the new volume, Hyde discusses the property we once held in common—from land to books to certain kinds of scientific discoveries—and demonstrates how this arena has steadily eroded."—Bill Eichenberger, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

"An infectiously enthusiastic writer."—Michael Schaub, NPR

"Necessary is the best and only real adjective to describe Lewis Hyde . . ."—Chris Michel, The Brooklyn Rail

"Hyde's vision . . . is an inspiration [that] should begin and not end when the last page of his remarkable book has been turned."—Fred Brandfon, The American Poetry Review

"Lewis Hyde has written a stunning book. Drawing from science, law, and art, and looking deep into the intentions of the founding fathers, Common as Air is essential reading, no matter where you stand in the ongoing debate about the ownership of art and ideas."—Anna Deavere Smith

"Deeply researched and powerfully felt, this book presents a compelling case for an alternate paradigm, and showcases the originality that readers cherished in The Gift."—Brendan Driscoll, Booklist

"The question of how our cultural commons, our shared store of art and knowledge, might be made compatible with our modern age of stringent copyright laws, intellectual property rights, and restrictive patenting is taken up with considerable brio by Hyde. Moving deftly between literary analysis, historiography, biography, and impassioned polemic, the book traces the idea of commonage from its English pastoral manifestations and pays particular attention to the American founding fathers' ideals of self-governance and civic republicanism grounded in the vision of a public realm animated by openly shared knowledge and property rights that functioned for the benefit of society rather than individuals alone . . . It is nonetheless a fascinating and eminently readable attempt to coordinate commerce and creativity in what he sees as an increasingly restrictive economy of ideas."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt

The argument: Even as market triumphalists work to extend the range of private property, a movement has arisen to protect the many things best held in common.

Most people act as if they had a private...

About the author

Lewis Hyde

Lewis Hyde is the author of The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property and Trickster Makes This World (FSG, 1998). A MacArthur Fellow and former director of creative writing at Harvard, he is currently Luce Professor of Art and Politics at Kenyon College.

©Anna Schuleit Haber

Interview with Gwarlingo: "Writer Lewis Hyde: All Creative and Inventive Minds are Not Simply Solitary"