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Changing literature

November 17, 2011

Steve Bellovin (Columbia) complains:

To avoid carrying too much, I got some ebooks to read on the plane; to make sure I could read something when jet-lag had scrambled my brain, I made sure I had some light reading; in particular, I borrowed ebooks of Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation series, since I know them more or less by heart and they don’t take much concentration. It worked well; I was indeed able to read a great deal of it, despite being mostly unconscious — until I found that someone had tinkered with it.

I wasn’t certain about the first anomaly I spotted: “Could Anacreon supply us with adequate quantities of plutonium for our nuclear-power plant?” But Asimov didn’t use the word “nuclear;” I was pretty sure he used “atomic.” Later on, when the Time Vault is about to open, the ebook spoke of a “computer” and a “muon beam/” I was quite certain that these words were not in my copy.

I confirmed that today. My paperback (the 1972 Avon printing) speaks of atomic power, and the Time Vault is controlled by a “speck of radium” and a “tumbler.” Why the changes? To make the text more “modern”? To “translate” the book into modern English? Thanks, but no thanks. One reason I enjoy reading older works is precisely to enjoy the older language, and to meditate on how language has evolved with the times. Making gratuitous changes like these reminds me of a line from E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” where he speaks of people who “will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine.”

Bellovin refers to Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” a dystopian short story that many say anticipates emerging behavior on the Internet.  Next Bellovin speculations on whether Asimov himself may have changed the text of his book, which case he concludes it was “legally-induced.”  (He further suspects that the change might have been made to “enable renewal of copyright,” but my understanding of the law at that time is that copyright renewal would be possible with no change to the text.)

Another interesting question is when the change took place. I suppose that the Avon edition might already differ from the original 1951 Doubleday version, but I think it more likely that it was the Bantam 1991 paperback that had the change, or perhaps their 2004 hardcover. The copyright notice on the ebook says "1951, 1979" — was the change made by Asimov himself to enable renewal of the copyright? If so, that’s a case of legally-induced tinkering. Regardless, I don’t like it.

This reminds me of a number of incidents:

  • Agatha Christie’s mystery  novel And Then There Were None was originally entitled Ten Little N* (where “n*” is a racial epithet used for black people – an epithet that was previously common [Abraham Lincoln frequently used it] but today is highly offensive) and includes reference to a nursery rhyme by the same name.  The story was later rewritten to have the nursery rhyme refer to “Ten Little Indians” and was titled the same, and then later rewritten again with its current title And Then There Were None and changes the nursery rhyme to “Ten Little Soldier Boys.”
  • Charles Darwin revised his Origin of the Species multiple times; ultimately six editions appeared with substantially different content.  A online variorum is here, and in-print here.  The changes were substantial – Darwin changed about 75% of his text, and the final version is 150 pages longer than the first.  However, in these later editions, Darwin spent much time interacting with his various scientific critics, and in the fifth edition, he substantially downplayed the role of natural selection, and thus the first edition is nearly universally preferred today.  (My favorite version is the Harvard annotated edition, which presents a facsimile of the first edition together with substantial annotations.)
  • Alan Gribben’s NewSouth edition of Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn made a number of editorial changes: substituting “slave” for the “n-word,” substituting “Indian Joe” for “Injun Joe,” changes to some skin color description, insertion of a usually deleted passage, and modernization of punctuation.

I have to say that I have somewhat mixed feelings about these changes.  In general, I dislike them, although I cannot say they are without reason (for example, Alan Gribben’s edition may be useful in some types of classroom use, although I greatly prefer to read uncensored editions.)  I also have to say that my opinion changes depending on the nature of the text; I do not think of Christie’s book as serious literature, and do not mind the updates there.  On the other hand, Twain went to substantial trouble to record regional language as actually spoken in that period, and I am more offended by the changes to his text.  I’m upset by the changes to Asimov’s and Darwin’s texts, even if they were done by the authors themselves.

What do you think?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2011 3:39 pm

    Interesting how you framed it… the question refers to “literature” not to mere “texts”… so somehow a director’s cut of a film or a revised version of a manual are OK, but “literature” is sacred 😉

  2. November 17, 2011 3:48 pm

    Fair point, Tim.

    The issue of revisions of manuals and films are a little different though.

    In the case of product manuals, revisions usually involve description of revised versions of products, so revision is appropriate. (Sometimes, however, a previously documented feature is “hidden” which does raise an interesting issue.)

    In the case of films, I am not sure that “authorship” of film makes sense. A film is ultimately a corporate (in the sense of multiple parties) product; even the director does not usually have final control over released cut. As a result, a “director’s cut” reflects a different take on the material. It is as if you and I co-authored a book, and then had a falling out, and you decided to release one version of the book, and I decided to release another version of the book. A second factor with films is that the main profits come from selling DVD and other video releases; and thus a “director’s cut” is an opportunity to increase sales. The same thing often happens with textbooks (how many revised versions of, say, a calculus textbook does society really need?) This interest in ringing up sales by releasing multiple versions clouds the question of what the ultimate version is.

    However, in the case of Mark Twain or Charles Darwin (which are in the public domain) or Agatha Christie and Isaac Asimov (where the changes to the text result in likely no new sales) the questions are somewhat different — they are not motivated by economic considerations or a change in a product described in the text. So I think the questions I ask are valid.

  3. November 17, 2011 5:43 pm

    So do I 🙂

    But I also find the framing interesting. The point (acording to your comment) seems to be is the change beneficial in some way. On this criterion I’d say the changes to Asimov were not (the original text is straightforward and comprehensible today). However in the case of what Americans call the N word, I’m still used to Congolese French where the word was used happily as a descriptor of the speaker and often with pride, I suspect in many contexts the changes may be helpful to some readers. Though the scholar in me would like to see such changes footnoted 😉

    Now, on the literature question, is this criterion of usefulness still dominant, or is canonical text somehow different? And who controls the canon?

  4. November 17, 2011 5:51 pm

    Something related: I’ve found three variants of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s essay known as the letter from a Birmingham jail. One of these he himself changed from the “original” for purposes of a later audience.

    May I also add?: readers of the Greek new testament are completely used to this problem.

  5. November 18, 2011 8:46 am

    Including Darwin on this list seems a little odd. You say later:

    “However, in the case of Mark Twain or Charles Darwin ….. they are not motivated by economic considerations or a change in a product described in the text.”

    I’d say that yes, Darwin’s changes are motivated by a change in the product (Darwin’s idea) described in the text. While I haven’t actually surveyed my colleagues to see which version they prefer my suspicion is that a preference for the first version is a historical preference. Now that Darwin’s writings are the beginning of a very large theory in biology we want to go back to the very beginning. However, while Darwin’s idea was still being actively-debated by Darwin it made sense for him to revise the manuscript to take into account new findings and arguments with each new printing. The purpose of such a document is, after all, to let Darwin explain his idea in depth without referencing three papers, six talks, and a book chapter.

    In this regard I think that Darwin’s scientific writings are much more like the manual for a product that gets updated than they are like a novel.

  6. November 18, 2011 11:12 am

    Eric: you may want to look at one of the variorum editions mentioned above. You’ll see that the sections added represent a dialogue between Darwin and his contemporary critics. Those contemporary critics no longer seem so important, and the added/modified sections now seem tedious. Further, Darwin watered down his ideas; as I mention above, particularly the role of natural selection in the fifth edition. The general consensus is that Darwin got this aspect of his theory right the first time. I’m not as sure that Darwin’s thought really evolved as much as he just ended up in a cycle of bickering — a bit like blog posts.

  7. November 18, 2011 6:13 pm

    I’m familiar with Darwin’s work. I’m suggesting that it serves as a living document that changes with Darwin’s own ideas. We are interested, for historical reasons, in Darwin’s very first ideas (sort of – there’s a lot of interest in Darwin’s later thoughts on sexual selection, too). However, the fact that we are interested in Darwin 1.0 isn’t quite the same thing as wishing that people wouldn’t “update” Asimov. The Foundation series wasn’t ever meant to represent what Asimov thought about anything, it’s just a good story. It was never supposed to update with Asimov and so tinkering with it is just weird.

    Obviously, it would be nice for the history of science if it was easier to get a hold of The Origin’s first printing. However, I think this is still a separate sort of complaint. Darwin has clear motives for changing up The Origin of Species and those motives don’t become problematic until Darwin becomes an important historical figure.

  8. November 18, 2011 7:15 pm

    Eric — I’m not sure I am fully understanding you here. I agree that Darwin’s changes have a purpose while Asimov’s just seem arbitrary.

    Even though Darwin had a reason to change his text (and even though his changes are interesting from a history of science viewpoint), I think Darwin made his text worse with his tinkering, and so it upsets me. (My view is fairly widely shared by evolutionary biologists; at least those whom I have interacted with.)

    My point was merely that the first edition was the clearest expression of Darwin’s thought.

    Some nitpicks: Origin includes substantial material on sexual selection in the first edition too. Darwin’s more definitive statement on sexual selection is in The Descent of Man which is fully titled The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Darwin was famous in his own age (which is why he got all that criticism) — he was honored with a burial near Newton at Westminster Abbey. And the first edition of Darwin (even the facsimile) is quite easy to find — the easiest of Darwin’s editions to locate at present, in fact.

  9. November 19, 2011 10:11 am

    “I’m not sure I am fully understanding you here. I agree that Darwin’s changes have a purpose while Asimov’s just seem arbitrary.”

    No, that sounds like you understand me. Initially you grouped all of these together as “changes that irritate me” which is valid, but I was interested in separating out the arbitrary ones for special scorn. After all, doing irritating things for no purpose is a special sort of irritating.

    Incidentally, while I describe myself as an ecologist it would be perfectly valid to call me an evolutionary biologist. And I’ve read Origin, although I don’t tend to take note of the version number when I consult a copy, and I’ve read Descent of Man (which more fully fleshes out the idea of sexual selection and is, therefore, a later idea of interest). And I’ve read Darwin biographies and even biographies of people vaguely associated with Darwin, like the captain of the Beagle.

    I maintain that Darwin’s ideas were not recognized as being as important as they are now in his own time. Yes, he was important – he was a prolific scientist from a good family – but much of what makes evolution so important today was being worked out for decades. Hugh Cott’s publication on camouflage from the 1940’s is clearly engaged in defending the Darwinian enterprise at points against scientists who believed that many features of animals might be completely non-adaptive (although Gould and Lewontin justly criticize the over-interpretation of traits as adaptive in their famous 1970’s article “The Spandrels of San Marco” [from memory – may not be San Marco]). When I say to my students that evolution is important I mean that it’s important largely because evolution means that features are subject to adaptive pressure and so when we see a behavior or a physical feature of an animal we can assume that this trait has been subject to optimizing pressure. It makes sense to say “why are some vole species polygynous while others are monogamous?” because we assume that evolution has shaped these species in a manner that is understandable (even if the answer ends up being something like “because, way back when, this was adaptive and the genetic changes to lose this behavior are effectively impossible”). Since this is the sort of comment one can only make within the last half-century or so Darwin’s status as a scientist has risen. (Technically, when he died it began to fall as he was no longer an important contemporary and then ramped back up as people began realizing how much his theory really touched.) More importantly, his status as a scientist has also been focused. We don’t really discuss his lengthy book on emotions in animals or his late treatise on earthworms. We discuss one theory and its offshoots which brings a special sort of historical focus on The Origin and the evolutionary publications that follow it.

  10. November 19, 2011 9:48 pm

    Eric — interesting perspective.

    But google’s n-gram viewer tells a different story about Darwin’s popularity:

    Darwin’s popularity actually declined during the ’30s and ’40s when the “modern evolutionary synthesis” united Mendelian genetics with Darwinian natural selection.

    Darwin’s popularity is still behind its 1915-1925 level, when Darwin enjoyed significant popularity from Hebert Spencer’s theories of “survival of the fittest” that would eventually be classed as “Social Darwinism.”

    If you are interested in the intellectual history of Darwinism after Darwin’s death, you may be interested in Peter Bowler’s Evolution: the History of an Idea or Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought.

  11. November 21, 2011 2:51 pm

    I was writing a reply about the null distribution you assume and then I realized that there are huge differences between the results for “Darwin”, “Origin of Species”, “origin of species”, and “The Origin of Species”. I’m no longer willing to draw conclusions from any of these lovely LOESS plots without a great deal more certainty about what’s going on under the hood. (The difference between capitalized and definite article versions of the same title are especially worrisome.)

  12. November 21, 2011 11:48 pm

    Eric, you may have a point there. I only tried “Darwin.” Searching by the title is somewhat problematic, since Darwin changed the title in the sixth edition.

    But on another note, I want to say that Darwin certainly had a genius for self-promotion. Compare how the general public knows Darwin versus, for example, R. A Fisher. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that Fisher was far more important for development of modern science — a giant both in biology and in statistics — compared with Darwin.

  13. November 22, 2011 11:52 am

    Partly this is also because of the fields involved. Darwin stands as biology’s Newton (although it’s require decades for the scope of his impact to be made clear, initially [and currently among Darwin-hating fundamentalists] his theory was seen as a historical explanation primarily). Fisher worked with a field that most people don’t understand even remotely. Even Fisher’s biological work is biomath. And, to some extent, I think some biologists regard Fisher’s work as more about developing new methods than great theory.

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