War And Words: How Cyber Editing Could Mean Heathcliff Becomes Boris Johnson

It may have been the typhoid fever but it took Leo Tolstoy six years to write that book. Six years of Russian sweat and tears and about six years for many of us to read it. Now word is out that all that hard work has become a victim of the e-age and we at Copper Tree headquarters, purveyors of fine books for children, don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Why?

Well Tolstoy’s classic, War And Peace, became a casualty itself this week with paperback warriors running down the street waiving their battered paperbacks in novel jubilation.

The alarm was first raised by blogger Philip Howard who wrote on the Ocracoke Island Journal:

I had read about half of the novel when I was given the gift of a Nook, the e-reader from Barnes and Noble. Although I am committed to supporting my neighborhood independent book store (Books to be Red), the .99 Nook edition was so lightweight that it has made reading War and Peace a genuine pleasure.

As I was reading, I came across this sentence: “It was as if a light had been Nookd in a carved and painted lantern….” Thinking this was simply a glitch in the software, I ignored the intrusive word and continued reading. Some pages later I encountered the rogue word again. With my third encounter I decided to retrieve my hard cover book and find the original (well, the translated) text.

For the sentence above I discovered this genuine translation: “It was as if a light had been kindled in a carved and painted lantern….”

So how could this have happened? Well according to our own cell of freedom fighters – ie our IT people – one explanation could be that whoever customized the e-book may have replaced phrases like “formatted for Kindle” with “formatted for Nook”. Then, the ‘find and replace’ facility like a meddling virus, zipped through the text. The result? The kindle word, which appears eight times in War And Peace, (which in itself might warrant translation concerns for Tolstoy) was edited into extinction and replaced by ‘nook’.

The victory could mean a turning point for the defenders of traditional books as they became armed, Luddite like, with a new e-weapon in their literary arsenal, care of the keyboard – ‘the find and replace’ facility.

So writers be warned!

What fun paperback warriors could have if they act on this initiative and develop a remote virus that could hack into e-readers and edit text.

What would the Bronte Society not to mention, the individuals themselves, make of say, Heathcliff and Catherine being “found and replaced” by Boris Johnson and Ann Widdicombe? What would the Revd W Audrey make of Thomas The Tank being “found and replaced” by Milly Molly Mandy? Would Monty Python, the creators of the Life Of Brian, have worried about accusations of blasphemy had they foreseen the effect of a remotely edited Bible? Imagine the hullabaloo if Pontius Pilate became Mary Magdalene, and vice versa, and what would the homophobes and D H Lawrence think if his classic were renamed Men In Love? And as we ruminated over this we panicked more. What if the dictatorial power of every biographical tyrant in history were replaced by self doubt as orders became questions with full stops being replaced by question marks? In fact, the effect could be infinite, with history being rewritten and Henry VIII losing his head while geographical erosion could see the Sahara waddling with penguins.

Well after a period of indignation and brow mopping we’ve resolved ourselves to the flipside.

Perhaps this innocent overwrite will lead to more stringent methods for the conversion of texts for e-readers – and perhaps firewalls will be developed to keep the paperback warriors at bay. Or maybe we should just stick to what we’ve always known – that hard copies remain virus free – unless, of course, a lender has typhoid.

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