Many e-book advocates – and even a few dead-tree purists – have argued the beauty of a digital text lies in part in its endless mutability. After all, a bound book can never be altered, only reissued in revised form. An e-book, on the other hand, can be instantly updated to reflect new reporting or errors in the previous edition.
Today, the Wall Street Journal's Digits blog speaks to a writer named F. Paul Wilson, whose 1984 book, "An Enemy of the State," was recently revised by Amazon, after customers complained that the Kindle version of the book was missing several chapters. Amazon admitted it "does, from time to time, contact customers with updates, and they occur with both fiction and non-fiction titles," according to the WSJ.
For his part, Wilson calls the ability to update e-books “a thing of beauty."
We agree, to a certain extent. Consider the impact the Web has made on the journalistic process: In the past, if a reporter messed up the facts, he had to wait until the next day to issue a correction. Today, he can have his editor instantly append a correction to the faulty story, along with a note explaining what went wrong. This kind of mutability will likely have a huge impact on nonfiction e-books.
But as Wilson acknowledges, "E-books offer the ability to tinker forever," which is not a good thing for everyone. Most writers quickly learn that at some point, more noodling is only going to make a book or a blog post worse. One writer we know, for instance, writes out every one of his articles in ballpoint pen, so he isn't distracted by the urge to go back and rejigger every single sentence. Perhaps as a result, his prose is a thing of wonder.
Let's run a hypothetical scenario, just for kicks: Marcel Proust, arguably the greatest novelist in history – and a chronic reviser of his own work – is born not in 1871, but 1981. In 2010, "In Search of Lost Time" is issued as an (extraordinarily massive) e-book. Alternate World Proust is initially happy with his creation, but after reading through the first published copy, he decides he wants to revise certain sections.
So he reaches out to Jeff Bezos. Amazon happily makes the changes – and sends out new editions of "In Search of Lost Time" to all its customers. And in the process, a great work of literature is tinkered and noodled to death.
Yes, it's a doomsday scenario. Yes, we might be overreacting. But are we wrong? We want to hear from you. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.