Publishing in the twilight of the printed word: Electronic book burning

by John MacBeath Watkins

We've discussed the Orwellian way that Amazon chose to remove illicit copies of 1984 it had sold by mistake in this post. Now Jonah Lehrer's discredited book, Imagine, has received similar treatment, reminding us of how easily the electronic word is burned.

Now, I can appreciate as much as the next man (or better!) how much Imagine deserved to be recalled. Nor is it at all uncommon for a publisher to pulp copies of a book that turns out to be in some way fraudulent. Maria Konnikova's article in The Atlantic gives some pretty good examples:

1999, to take one example, was a particularly impressive year. In September, Grove/Atlantic junked 7,500 just-printed copies of James Mackay's I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A Life of John Paul Jones after "an absolutely scathing indictment" of plagiarism (apparently, Grove/Atlantic hadn't cared to investigate the fact that only a year prior, John Wiley & Sons had to withdraw Mackay's biography of Alexander Graham Bell and pulp all remaining copies, for the very same reason). That October, St. Martin's Press withdrew J. J. Hatfield's biography of George W. Bush, after information surfaced that the author was a convicted felon. And earlier in the year, multiple publishers recalled Binjamin Wilkomirski's Holocaust memoir, Fragments, after a Swiss historian's report showed that the author was actually named Bruno Dössekker—and that he'd never lived through the Holocaust in the first place, but was instead safely and comfortably ensconced in Switzerland for the war's duration.
So we'll not cry for you, Jonah Lehrer. But as Konnikava points out, what's appalling here is not that Jonah Lehrer's tissue of lies is no longer available anywhere as an ebook, it is the ease with which it was erased from the face of the culture.

Normally, I would bloviate (or blogulate) at length about this, but Konnikova has done such a nice job, I'm just using my little platform to encourage you to read her article as linked above, and contemplate a world where the very existence of a book can end with a key stroke.

When the Catholic Church was trying to make sure that no Bibles were published in any language the common people could read, an English bishop tried to eliminate William Tyndale's translation by buying up all the copies and burning them. Tyndale, having experienced a windfall from this sale, used the money to publish a new version with some corrections he had wanted to make.

Could that have happened with an ebook?

More on publishing in the twilight of the printed word: