ebookI read a very interesting post this week at GoodeReader, which asked this question: how do we know our eBooks aren’t being altered?

When I first read the headline, I thought this would be about post-publication correction, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing. I don’t want my books to be re-written whole cloth after they have been bought and read, but I welcome revisions which involve correcting typos or improving poor formatting.

But our friends at GoodeReader are asking about something else. From the article:
In a recent thread at the e-reading website MobileRead one user explained their reasons of changing the fabric of a book: “I recently uploaded The Queen of Hearts (a collection of novels written in the 1850s) by Wilkie Collins to the MR library. As well as changing ‘gayety’ to ‘gaiety’ and ‘gayly’ to ‘gaily’ I also changed ‘gay’ to ‘light-hearted’. I did this because the English language has changed in the last 150 odd years. In our day ‘a gay man’ would almost certainly be read as ‘a homosexual man,’ and this is simply not what Collins meant – he would have used a different term if he had dared to mention a character’s sexual orientation at all. I did add a note to the posting that I had updated spelling and hyphenation – I also changed ‘to-day’ to ‘today’ for example.”

I’m not sure what to make of this. It’s not the choice I would have made; the English language HAS changed—but of course, if one wants to read modern English, there are plenty of contemporary authors to enjoy. If you want to read Collins, you should read Collins.

At the same time though, the publishing industry does have a long history of adapting and making use of public domain materials. I am thinking of things like the ‘Classics for Children’ books one always finds. Certainly, this poster at MobileRead is not the first to do a little tweaking. And, as the works of Wilkie Collins are most firmly in the public domain, he or she has done nothing wrong.

I suppose my conclusion, then, is that it’s all about playing fair. This poster did fully disclose the changes; if you’d rather read the book as Collins wrote it, there are other editions available to you. So where is the harm?

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  1. I faced the same changed-meaning problem with a bestselling nineteenth-century novel that I’m adapting to become what I hope will prove to be a marvelous young adult novel. Here’s an example from the opening chapter:

    A rollicking witch whom he calls “Lil,” is fighting a sham battle with the soldier-papa whom she has never seen until a week before…

    “Witch” today has an almost exclusively occult meaning, certainly not what a father would say about his four-year-old daughter. That’s because at that time it could also mean “a charming and lively girl.” I suspect that’s because it’s “witch” in the sense of “bewitching.”

    There’s actually a much better fix that doesn’t require covertly editing the book. Simply put the correct modern meaning inside square brackets as here:

    A rollicking witch [a charming and lively girl], whom he calls “Lil,” is fighting a sham battle with the soldier-papa whom she has never seen until a week before…

    In scholarly works, that’s the standard way to insert corrections without altering the original remarks. In my book, I also use it to insert brief explanations of words that have fallen out of use. For cases where the word’s spelling has simply changed, I usually insert the new spelling in place of the old. There’s no need to bother readers over something that trivial.

    That book should be out in a few weeks. Here’s the back cover description, which describes what that little Lily does some dozen or so years later:

    “It’s sunset in rural North Carolina just after the Civil War. Lily’s parents are away when a anonymous message warns that the Klan intends to kill her father that very night. To rescue him, Lily must ride her father’s powerful thoroughbred stallion over the same roads on which a hundred Klansmen from three counties are traveling. That’s Lily’s brave ride.”

    It’s title will be Lily’s Ride: Rescuing her Father from the Ku Klux Klan. It’s now done, cover and all. All that’s left is all the messiness of uploading so copies will be available almost everywhere.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

  2. I think it’s unneccesy. But these types of changes aren’t limited to classics. In the United States British works often Americanize the English text. For exampes, fags become cigarettes, wheelie bins become Dumpters, car’s boot becomes car’s trunk, and spellings like colour become come color. Again, it’s totally unneccesy as I see it. I like the way different countries use English. A good reader can pick up the how the British speak and write with out too much trouble. But then I read Chaucer in the original Middle English.

    I think this morphing of English should be abandoned.

    And if you want to something funny, find the American dubbed version of Mad Max. I guess someone thought Assuie accents and lots of uttered oys wouldn’t go over well

  3. I actually change the Collins that I downloaded from Gutenberg from US spelling back to British spelling. I find that it is very annoying to see US spelling when the book I read is written by a British author or vice versa. I think most (or all) Collins works on Gutenberg are the US version, so the spelling is US spelling. Nowadays, I won’t directly download any work to my Kindle. I always use my computer to check the spelling first.

  4. @Michael, isn’t Inkling a purveyor of interactive books? Or did I mis-read the signature on your comment? An interactive book should be able to do this kind of thing in a far more elegant way, a highlight that, when clicked/tapped, invokes a popup with scrolling (if necessary) text field. Such a device could even contain a hyperlink to an appendix or a web site for even more information.

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