CHANGING THE TEXTS… OF GEORGE ORWELLAugust 20, 2019
For some time I've been warning of the danger of e-book platforms like Kindle and Nook and so on, which to my mind surrender undue influence and control over texts to corporations which, with their record of supporting political correctness and other kinds of tom-foolery, could be a bad thing. Repeatedly I've warned that e-books, like any cyber system, are not really secure, and that anyone could hack into them and change the text of books to suit their political or cultural agendas. Over and over I've warned that e-books would be like the old Soviet Encyclopedia, on steroids, this year Yezhov is in the picture with Stalin, next year he isn't, because he's been purged. Or, imagine e-book versions of the Book of Common Prayer or other Christian or, for that matter, any other religious text. It would be a theological revisionist's dream come true; troublesome texts could be revised, disturbing traditions could be expunged, at the push of a button. No need for cumbersome "ecumenical councils" like Vatican II to do the dirty work. My other big problem with the whole concept has been that ebooks change formatting... and what happens to scholarship if pages numbers of particular passage keep fluctuating? How does one cite an ever-fluctuating, mutating text?
Well, K.M. spotted this article in the New York Times, and it seems that my warnings are coming true to a certain extent:
As the article points out, some books are presuming to "improve" on an author, in this case, George Orwell:
Most of the distorted texts are likely due to ignorance and sloppiness but at their most radical the books try to improve Orwell, as with the unauthorized “high school edition” of his 1933 memoir. The editing was credited to a Moira Propreat. She could not be reached for comment; in fact, her existence could not be verified.
“Down and Out” is an unflinching look at brutal behavior among starving people, which makes Ms. Propreat’s self-appointed task of rendering the book “more palatable” rather quixotic. An example of her handiwork came when Charlie, a boastful rapist, described how he lured a young woman into his clutches:
“‘Come here, my chicken,’ I called to her.”
Ms. Propreat’s version:
“‘Come here,’ I called to her.”
It’s unlikely that Orwell, a finicky master of English prose, would have appreciated this editing — nor the fact that all the French in the book is rendered in capital letters, which makes it seem like the writer is shouting at the reader.
As one can guess, most of the article is concerned with false or faked copies of famous literary works being offered by sellers such as Amazon, and with Amazon's alleged lack of proper curation of the texts it is selling. But it's difficult to imagine how Amazon, or any other company, can keep track of the hundreds of thousands of titles it is selling. As an author, for me part of the problem of curation lies with the consumer, and to that end, I've publicly and repeatedly stated that the only canonical text of my books are the hard copy books that come directly from my publishers. More recently, I've taken to self-publishing, partly in order to maintain my own personal oversight of the actual text of my works. I do not, and will never, recognize any e-book platform of any of my books as canonical, and have prohibited my publishers from offering any further books as e-books, should I choose to publish with them again.
Notably, the NY Times article mentions this very point as a growing concern:
The Authors Guild said that in the last two years, the number of piracy and counterfeiting issues referred to its legal department has increased tenfold. Counterfeit editions are a blow against the authority of the book and accelerate a dangerous trend toward misinformation.
“During most of human existence, facts have been hard to pin down and most of knowledge was oral history, rumor and received wisdom,” said Scott Brown, a prominent California bookseller. “We have spent our whole lives in a fact-based world and while that seems how things ought to be, it may prove to have been a temporary aberration.”
Mr. Brown noted that the news was now mostly digital. “Who can really say what an article really said when it was published? There’s rarely a printed — and therefore hard-to-change — version to refer back to,” he said. “The past is becoming unmoored and unreliable.”
One of the Orwell books I bought was a copy of “Animal Farm” issued by Grapevine India. On the copyright page it declared, “The author respects all individuals, organizations & communities, and there is no intention in this novel to hurt any individual, organization [or] community.” (Emphasis added)
But it goes further, specifically highlighting the "formatting" problem I've been warning about with respect to e-book platforms:
The large publishers, which have remained mostly mute since they were on the losing side of an antitrust clash with Amazon over e-reading, are now finding their voice again. Their trade group, the Association of American Publishers, just filed a heavily researched analysis with the Federal Trade Commission that is remarkably blunt.
“The marketplace of ideas is now at risk for serious if not irreparable damage because of the unprecedented dominance of a very small number of technology platforms,” the report concluded.
Meanwhile, the books are mutating. A reader recently tried to sound the alarm about a different dystopian classic he bought on Amazon.
“This is not the real Fahrenheit 451,” he wrote. “The wording is different, the first chapter is not properly titled, they used the first sentence of the chapter as the title in this book. There are typo’s and spacing issues. They need to advertise that this is not an authentic book.”(Emphasis added)
In other words, the formatting of e-book platforms can become an actual "content changer". I've also warned about the ability of corporations to reach into your virtual e-book library, and literally erase the text, and sure enough, that has happened too:
How it treats Orwell is especially revelatory because their relationship has been fraught. In 2009, Amazon wiped counterfeit copies of “1984” and “Animal Farm” from customers’ Kindles, creeping out some readers who realized their libraries were no longer under their control.(Emphases added)
Bottom line: technology is not the be-all and end-all, especially when it comes to the preservation of texts and traditions, especially in an age when radical political and cultural agendas are everywhere to be seen, especially in corporations. These people are simply not to be trusted because they are attempting to own the culture by owning the means and platforms to change the past at the push of a button.
So in case you missed my two favorite axioms: (1) own the culture, and (2) the only canonical form of my books are the hard copies coming directly from the publishers. And that means part of the responsibility for maintaining those texts lie with the consumer. That means that if you buy the e-book version, or an online pdf, or a version not from a reputable publisher, you're part of breaking the chain of transmission of a tradition and text. Best not to buy the Soviet Encyclopedia at all.
See you on the flip side...