Nooking an Interest in Literature

June 3, 2012

This past week brought news of a somewhat strange and amusing experience with the brave new world of electronic books.  A reader who purchased an English translation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace for his Barnes & Noble Nook e-reader came across this curious sentence opening:

It was as if a light had been Nookd in a carved and painted lantern and the intricate, skillful, artistic work on its sides …

The reader, who first posted the story on his blog, noticed several more odd occurrences of the word “Nook”.  A subsequent comparison with a printed copy of the translation revealed that the sentence should have begun

It was if a light had been kindled in a carved and painted lantern …

According to an article at Ars Technica on the incident, there are eight places in the electronic version where the word “nookd” appears.

I’m sure by this point many readers will have remembered that Amazon sells an e-reader called the Kindle, and have guessed the sort of thing that happened.  The novel, War and Peace, is in the public domain.  The most plausible hypothesis is that the publisher, a company called Superior Formatting Publishing, had first prepared a Kindle version of the book.  Then, when it wanted to produce a version for the Nook reader, it did a global search-and-replace on the text, changing all occurrences of  “kindle” to “Nook”.  Possibly this was done because of annotations on the title page or elsewhere.  In this case, the resulting changes were sufficiently odd to motivate the reader’s further investigation.  Probably in most similar cases the results would be merely nonsensical.

However, as Harvard Law Prof. Jonathan Zittrain and Kendra Albert, of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, point out in a blog post, the case does, once again, remind us of the ephemeral nature of electronic text.  It is possible to imagine that an unscrupulous publisher might make changes that would modify the meaning of the text.  Back in the era of (only) printed books, the economics of publishing meant that this could only be done at considerable expense.  Easy, inexpensive electronic publishing certainly has benefits, but there’s a potential downside, too.  Free lunches are still in short supply.

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