Jan 18, 2012

There was an interesting article in the New York Times a few weeks ago, ‘Books That Are Never Done Being Written’ by Nicolas Carr in which he claims to have ‘got a glimpse into the future of books’. Carr had published a series of old essays as an e-book via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service, but decided to alter the text post-publication. As Carr writes,

I made the edits on my computer and sent the revised file back to Amazon. The company quickly swapped out the old version for the new one. I felt a little guilty about changing a book after it had been published, knowing that different readers would see different versions of what appeared to be the same edition. But I also knew that the readers would be oblivious to the alterations.

The implications of this ability to alter the text of already published books – in the (seemingly) same edition and utterly undetectable – are interesting. As Carr writes, ‘the endless malleability of digital writing promises to overturn a whole lot of our assumptions about publishing,’ in particular, our idea of a work as a complete, finalised object: ‘the words of books go from being stamped permanently on sheets of paper to being rendered temporarily on flickering screens.’

There are, indeed, many advantages of this, as Carr outlines – writers can correct errors and update facts, particularly useful in guidebooks, ‘the instructions in manuals will always be accurate. Reference books need never go out of date.’ But then, of course, the slippery slope begins:

Even literary authors will be tempted to keep their works fresh. Historians and biographers will be able to revise their narratives to account for recent events or newly discovered documents. Polemicists will be able to bolster their arguments with new evidence. Novelists will be able to scrub away the little anachronisms that can make even a recently published story feel dated.

The piece is indeed fascinating – if not alarming with its Orwellian implications – until you realise that this ability is open to us with online publishing already. On this blog for example, I can go back and alter anything in any of my posts and no-one would be the wiser. It is instant, seamless and, from the outside at least, utterly undetectable. But of course, I wouldn’t because then the comments don’t make sense, or people’s responses to it become redundant. Sure, I might change the odd typo if noticed after I’ve hit ‘Publish’ in the back end of the site, but to drastically alter the text, its examples, its arguments, would be mad. (I’d be interested to hear from other bloggers if they have their own rules on altering text once published.)

The internet, like some sort of endlessly mirrored Panopticon, tends to self-regulate. It is the watchful audience, or at least our belief in one, that keeps us from altering our words. If one thing is clear from any sort of writing online – you only have to look at those who attempt to delete a controversial tweet and are then confronted with hundreds of screenshots of it – is that the internet doesn’t forget.

Wikipedia is the obvious example here, where you can view a history of the revisions for each Wikipedia post, and this might be a good solution to the problem Carr has highlighted that publishers of e-books should consider instituting. But, again, who would want to endlessly refresh and track changes to a novel that you believe to be completed?

Taken to its logical conclusion, if it became the norm for authors to endlessly revise their novels with no announcement in the (apparently) same edition, reviewing would become redundant. Why spend all your time reading a novel and carefully crafting an analysis when the text could change at any time? For authors desperate to have their works reviewed, the whole thing seems counter-intuitive.

As Carr writes, what is lost in this sort of malleability, ‘is the sense of a book as a finished and complete object, a self-contained work of art.’ As many have been quick to point out in the comments, the sense of a work as finished and complete is incorrect – books are published in hundreds of new, revised editions, with epilogues and afterwards and introductions and addendums. But I think the essence of Carr’s point remains.

‘Typographical fixity’… helped to protect original documents from corruption, providing a more solid foundation for the writing of history. It established a reliable record of knowledge, aiding the spread of science. It accelerated the standardization of everything from language to law.

The importance of books, essays, commentary – whatever their topic or form – is in their status as time capsules. They show us how far we’ve developed, how our thinking has changed and attitudes evolved. To alter texts to suit the current moment is to find ourselves trapped in the perpetual present. Though I don’t think this will be, as Carr claims, the ‘future of books,’ it’s an interesting reminder of the dangers of covert malleability for online and e-book publishing.

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4 thoughts on “E-publishing and the dangers of malleability

  1. Bethanie Blanchard

    Thanks for your comments.

    Gavin – Yes, you’re absolutely right, and this is something Carr notes in his piece: “Before Gutenberg, books were handwritten by scribes, and no two copies were exactly the same. Scribes weren’t machines; they made mistakes. With the arrival of the letterpress, thousands of identical copies could enter the marketplace simultaneously.”
    The point I was focusing on is the idea that changes made to e-books are untraceable and unannounced. The difference with those pre-Gutenberg texts is that, although they may indeed have differed wildly, it is still possible to track the various versions and the differences are traceable.
    The whole evolution of how works are published and preserved is fascinating, what I was concerned with is just this idea that we may have no record of changes happening to digital texts like e-books.

    Edward – It is quite incredible how long something as fragile as ink on paper can last for! I think e-books are generally pretty good (it’s important to note that Carr’s example was using self-publishing so he didn’t have to go through the process of having an editor etc.) but I do think that changes should be tracked and the older versions preserved.

  2. pandora

    This is where there is a place for web archives such as the Internet Archive or Australia’s PANDORA Archive which, by virtue of the fact that that preserve a snapshot in time of (at least some) web content, create the historical artifacts to complement the dynamic malleable and ephermeral content of the originals. Though of course this may create its own tensions.

  3. Edward James

    I like the idea of a “book” as a time capsule. Only last night I watched a report about a diary which was written over a hundred years ago about a sea voyage with pen and ink, only to find its way back into the South Australian Museum. A book has a start middle and ending. An electronic book should be forced to comply to those same rules of old time ink printing. We had reprints and revised editions dated and referenced. what’s changed have the new electronic publishers become lazy? Is it true they don’t give a fig for history? Edward James

  4. Gavin Moodie

    Text became fixed only with the invention of printing. Before Gutenberg texts were quite variable as scribes made mistakes, corrected earlier mistakes or what they understood to be earlier mistakes, introduced marginalia and even editorialised. Thus, for example, the pre Gutenberg translators of the bible into the vernacular had to go to great trouble to identify the Latin or Greek text(s) to use as their source. Yet the bible, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, etc, survived well enough.

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