eBooks, Errors, and Plato

On the topic of ebook errors, let’s at least ask the question: should ebooks be edited, post-release?

Our initial reaction may well be: “yes, why not?” But, TeleRead (“E-books: Good for fixing mistakes?”) offers an argument in favor of the ebook error as a historical artifact:

“The thing about a book is that it’s a physical artifact. If there’s a mistake in it, that mistake is physically fixed, like a fly trapped in amber. It serves as part of the historical record, as a form of proof that someone once thought the things it said were factual enough to publish them.

But given a hypothetical future where the e-book is all we have, going in and seamlessly correcting it removes a little bit of history from the world, and makes things a little bit more confusing. And if people have responded to the book, written articles about the incorrect information in it, “fixing” it after the fact looks like “an unwillingness to admit to your mistakes.”

If we want to take the somewhat romantic view, sure, there is something to be said about the fallibility of book publishing, errors and all, reminding us that human communication is never perfect etc., etc. I don’t know about you, but the “fly trapped in amber” conjured up memories of the spoken vs. written word philosophical debate (Plato’s Phaedrus, anyone?)* Just as at one time in history, people thought of the spoken word as the true, living embodiment of human communication, and the written word as a frozen, impoverished form of communication, it’s fun to think about the print vs. ebook debate in those terms.

There is an argument for at least some method of post-publication ebook editing. As in the case of a historical account about Hiroshima which ends up being totally made up, as E-Reads points out: “E-BooksPerfect for Instant Repair of Screwups”.

You can read the related New York Times article (“Pondering Good Faith in Publishing”) from last spring, and decide for yourself: an open question about the role of book publishers, or simply bad historical investigating?

“Book publishers have long seen themselves as the gatekeepers of literary culture. But when they’re not looking, the truth has a way of being left at the door …

This is not the first time a publisher has been humiliated by an author’s unverified work. But this instance has occurred at a time when the publisher’s traditional role is under economic and technological stress.

With the rise of electronic books, makers of reading devices and online retailers are putting pressure on prices and the traditional book publishing business model. And, as with record labels and newspapers, digital media raises the question of what part the traditional book publisher will play in the future.”

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* Or, if you prefer, Derrida, and Plato’s Pharmacy. One of my favorite, readable, Derrida essays.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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