Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Mutabilis mutandi

It looks like some over-zealous programmer for Barnes and Noble set up the Nook e-reader to replace every appearance of the word "Kindle" with "Nook." That works OK when "Kindle" is a proper noun referring to their competition from Amazon. But the results look hilarious, sad, pitiable, ridiculous and outrageous, depending on your mood, when the word is a verb. Philip Howard, who blogs at Okracoke Island Journal, on May 22, 2012, noted that he was reading Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace on his Nook.

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...."

Someone at Barnes and Noble (a twenty year old employee? or maybe the CEO?) had substituted every incidence of "kindled" with "Nookd!"
This discovery is roaring through the blogosphere: Ars Technica tested it and found 8 instances. They include a nice screen shot highlighting an example where "Nook" in inserted for "kindle" in the text. The story also appears on and I originally was told it was covered on MSNBC. The Atlantic has a story on it (they couldn't resist the pun! (Tolstoy gets nookered), and The Baltimore Sun covers it, too. There are many more repeats of the story, but these are the higher profile commentators.

Probably the most insightful comments come from Kendra Albert at Jonathan Zittrain's blog The Future of the Internet and How to Stop it. First Ms. Albert recalls the classic story of the day Amazon panicked that they had not gotten proper copyright clearance for George Orwell's 1984, and yanked it from all e-readers without notice. Even people reading it had it disappear, notes and highlights and all, quite suddenly. Amazon gave back the 99 cents everybody had paid, but it did not diminish the sense of outrage, or the sense of irony, because of the text.

Then, playing off that experience with the extreme mutability of e-texts, Albert continues to examine the Kindle to Nook event. She comments that the change probably happened when the company that formatted the text, Superior Formatting, a contractor for Barnes and Noble, ported the text. They probably do the same work for Amazon, and may insert ads for the Kindle in work that they do for that company. So they probably did a search and replace to find and replace all the ads for the Kindle e-reader over the ads for the Nook. It just wasn't well-thought-out, and now, they look pretty stupid. Or, Barnes and Noble look stupid, which is worse!
The unwitting hilarity of a publisher doing a “find and replace” and accidentally changing the text of a canonical work of Western thought is alarming. Many versions of e-books are from similar outfits, that distribute public domain works formatted for Kindle or Nook at the lowest possible prices. The great democratizing factor of the ebook formats – that anyone can easily distribute – can also mean that readers can never be quite sure that they are viewing the texts as the author intended.
Interestingly enough, we seem to have come a full circle. The earliest job of the great scholars and librarians was to recognize the correct copies of the classics, and weed out the incorrect copies. When everything was copied by hand, it was very easy for errors and changes to creep into those scrolls and manuscripts.

Tip of the OOTJ hat to my colleague Spencer Simons at University of Houston. The illustration of Tolstoy came from the Atlantic article, and is credited to the Wikimedia Commons, which credits it to Nikolai Gei, translated in English as Leo Tolstoy at His Desk, painted around 1870.

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