Monday, July 20, 2009

When is a book not a book?

From Pogue at the New York Times:
This morning, hundreds of Amazon Kindle owners awoke to discover that books by a certain famous author had mysteriously disappeared from their e-book readers. These were books that they had bought and paid for—thought they owned.

But no, apparently the publisher changed its mind about offering an electronic edition, and apparently Amazon, whose business lives and dies by publisher happiness, caved. It electronically deleted all books by this author from people’s Kindles and credited their accounts for the price.

The best part? In a plot development that would have any creative writing teacher saying "Can't you be a little less obvious in your symbolism?" the deleted book is (wait for it). . . 1984.

So you can't trust a Kindle edition, huh? Well, thank goodness for paper editions.

As the late Billy Mays might say, "BUT WAIT--THERE'S MORE."

Scribner's has just reissued Hemingway's A Moveable Feast in a "new and improved" version by Hemingway's grandson. The blurb at says that the original edition was cobbled together by Mary Hemingway out of fragments and doesn't represent Hemingway's intentions.

Not so fast, says A. E. Hotchner, a Hemingway friend who was there when Hemingway retrieved the notebooks that formed the basis for the work, discussed the work in progress, and ultimately read the manuscript on the way to delivering it to Scribner's: "When I was leaving for New York to give the manuscript to the editor of Life, Ernest also gave me the completed manuscript of the Paris book to give to Scribner’s president, Charles Scribner Jr. I recount this history of “A Moveable Feast” to demonstrate how involved Ernest was with it, and that the manuscript was not left in shards but was ready for publication."

It's hard not to think of this in terms of other works changed after the author's death: Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night, John Lennon's demo versions of a song later issued as "Real Love," and even cartoons and movies from which embarrassing racial representations have been silently excised and sent down the memory hole. The thing is, though, that we have to make choices about these editions all the time when we order editions for our classes. Because they exist in physical form, both versions exist.

But with the Kindle, it's possible to make the whole book disappear even after you've bought it. If that can happen, it should also be possible to remove (wirelessly and silently) a version of a text that had been downloaded but had some flaws--typos, for example. I'm not saying that correcting flaws is a bad thing, but if that can happen, it's also possible to change other things about a text--remove a passage or term that appeared in the paper version but has been deemed too offensive for modern sensibilities, for example. The issue is that this can be done silently, without warning, even after we think we've ordered a stable edition for class.

Time and Hemingway scholars will sort out the issue of the "improved" paper edition of A Moveable Feast. One or the other will disappear, or both will be required. But the disappearing 1984 edition? Amazon says it won't ever disappear books from users' Kindles again for problems with a Kindle edition. Honest. No kidding. You can trust us, says Jeff Bezos. But I still think the whole issue of having a stable, authoritative edition just took not a small step, but a giant leap toward complexity.


CarlD said...

This is a cool analysis and does nothing to lessen my ambivalence about Kindles, but I must note for completeness that Amazon was likely only able to delete the copies hosted on its servers; anyone who'd stored their copy on their own memory card would presumably still have it.

On the plus side, the proliferation of variants is going to be good business for grad student conference papers soon and for a long time to come.

Anonymous said...

Oh, wow. I hadn't heard about this. And the 1984 part is just so juicy...

Sisyphus said...


WE {this comment has been deleted}

undine said...

Carl, you're right: grad students can make hay out of this for a long time. Only Kindle 1 customers can store books externally, though; Kindle 2 apparently doesn't have the capability to add an SD card.

Ink, it seemed too good to be true, but unless the Gray Lady is napping, that's what's being reported.

Sisyphus, exactly!