You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Is the Internet Turning Books into Perpetual Works-in-Progress?

Richard North Patterson remembers the moment he learned that Osama bin Laden was dead. He was watching television on a Sunday evening two days before the publication of his latest novel, The Devil’s Light, in which Al Qaeda plans a nuclear attack on America for the decade anniversary of 9/11. Wolf Blitzer, grave-faced, said something about a major national security announcement. And immediately, Patterson knew. “I sat there like a man in a catatonic state,” he recalled. “I could see the train coming toward me, but I couldn’t speak or move.” In The Devil’s Light, bin Laden was very much alive, hatching deadly plots in a cave in western Pakistan. Patterson—author of more than 15 political thrillers, including several best-sellers—realized instantly that his book was in trouble. “I’m the only American who suffered from bin Laden’s death,” he said. “Generally I’d be happy to take one for the team. I just wished they’d kept him in a refrigerator for a month.”

But in the era of e-books, there was an easy fix. Patterson, together with his agent and publisher, decided to take an unprecedented step for a work of fiction: They would release a revised digital edition to align the plot with current events. “Initially, when this kind of thing happens, you are still sort of trapped in an analog world and you say, ‘Oh well, this is bad timing,’ said Susan Moldow, Patterson’s publisher at Scribner. “But then you go—wait a minute...”

Patterson spent hours combing through the galleys, hunting down all references to the Al Qaeda leader, fiddling with passages to clarify that bin Laden was unmistakably out of the picture. “But if one of our cities disappears on September 11, Bin Laden will be the most powerful man on earth” became “But if one of our cities disappears on September 11, Bin Laden will again be the most powerful man on earth, even dead.” “The words echoed in the stone cave, the Renewer’s last refuge, concealed in the harsh mountains of western Pakistan” became “Though their leader had powerful protectors within Pakistan, the compound in which he hid might well be closely watched.” A scene in which the Al Qaeda leader appeared on television now has bin Laden addressing the public from beyond the grave via a pre-recorded message. And so The Devil’s Light, released August 16th in e-book form, was brought promptly up-to-date.

Of course, it wasn’t always this simple for a book to stay relevant when unexpected events upended its premise. Norman Angell published The Great Illusion in 1908, arguing that war was unprofitable and therefore unlikely for the foreseeable future; when war broke out in 1914, critics pounced on his thesis and Angell spent the next few years releasing updated print editions of his book in a struggle to clarify that he had not meant that war was impossible.

But today, e-books have made post-publication tinkering newly convenient. Amazon sends e-mails to customers to inform them when an updated text—with assorted typos and factual errors corrected—of a book they’ve purchased is available for download, as it has done with titles ranging from The Lord of the Rings to Stacey Schiff’s Cleopatra. Could the e-book become a mutable thing that evolves with its circumstances, independent of the book it descended from? And is this a sign that our expectation for a book is shifting from finished product to perpetual work-in-progress—or just the logical conclusion of a long tradition of multiple, unstable texts?

“Textual stability,” to borrow historian Robert Darnton’s phrase, has never really existed in the publishing word. Voltaire produced so many addenda and corrected editions of his published books that some frustrated readers refused to buy his complete works until after he died. The widely circulated eighteenth-century edition of Diderot’s Encyclopédie featured hundreds of pages that the original version had not included. In the nineteenth century, the French composer Ambroise Thomas wrote a different ending for his opera of Hamlet to appeal to those who found the bloodshed a bit too gory.

Scholars for generations have issued second and third and fourth editions of texts to renovate outdated information. And some authors of fiction have even capitalized on the opportunity presented by new editions to modernize anachronisms. When F. Paul Wilson’s 1984 novel The Tomb was reissued in 2004, Wilson swapped mentions of a “VCR” for “DVD player” and removed a comment about Johnny Carson, who had since retired from The Tonight Show.

A far more sinister example is the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, notoriously manipulated by Communist ideologues. In the 1950s, after the downfall of Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s chief of secret police, all encyclopedia owners were instructed to remove the “Beria” entry from the book and replace it with an expanded article about the Bering Strait.

So adjusting a book in order to usher it from one historical moment to the next is nothing new. But the difference with e-books, of course, is the speed and the ease of revision. The e-book of The Devil’s Light in which bin Laden is dead was released just months after the hardcover in which bin Laden is alive and scheming; the paperback, which will also include Patterson’s changes, won’t be released until 2012. This likely explains why—judging by the large assortment of updated Kindle editions currently available on Amazon—e-books seem to have prompted a new enthusiasm for tweaking content after publication.

At stake here, some might say, is the question of the integrity of the book: When is a text finished? Any published book is necessarily a somewhat arbitrary product; most authors could tinker forever. But going to press demands that a book be done, at least for the moment. This fact has given us some of the loveliest “mistakes” in history. Shakespeare’s reference, taken from Robert Greene’s Pandosto, to the Bohemian coast in The Winter’s Tale—though the kingdom of Bohemia was landlocked in central Europe—has made the Bohemian Sea into a symbol of impossible utopia. It is still unclear whether Shakespeare meant to botch his geography or might have quietly relocated his coast if technology had given him the chance.

There is another key difference between the updated e-book and the revised print edition, aside from timing and cost: In the former, the revision literally replaces the book that preceded it. Once downloaded, in most cases, a new e-book supplants the original version as though the flawed first text was never there. A second print edition can exist alongside its first edition—an e-book, meanwhile, erases the record of what came before it. Book publishing seems to have embraced the blogosphere ethos, with its constant metamorphosis and instant deletion of misinformation. It is not so hard to imagine a world of books that keep pace with the 24-hour news cycle, evolving to accommodate new facts. “Ultimately, there’s no question in my mind that there will be books in the future where [updating the e-text after publication] is part of the process,” said Moldow of Scribner.

Patterson is naturally thrilled at the prospect. Without its e-book, The Devil’s Light would have been an artifact before it hit the shelves. “Let’s suppose you have a major biography of a politician, and then something terrible happens, a scandal, an assassination, that casts an entirely different light on his career or personality,” he said. You could return to the text to edit out the evidence that you were ever wrong, or face the ultimate defeat of the digital age: a book that is, in Patterson’s words, like “a fly in amber, frozen in time.”

Laura Bennett is the assistant literary editor of The New Republic.