How to Make a Book Disappear (or, What should the Catalog tell you?)

Posting to Autocat

There is a provocative article in The Atlantic, “How to Make a Book Disappear” by Maria Konnikova (Sep 18 2012) about Jonah Lehrer’s book “Imagine : how creativity works”, which has made up quotes of Bob Dylan. (re:

The publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, is recalling all of the books and pulping them. The point of Ms. Konnikova’s article is that even the bibliographic traces are disappearing too. You can’t find it on Amazon. “All of a sudden, Imagine did not exist—at least, as far as major online retailers were concerned. Search for it on Amazon, and you get the following message: “Looking for something? We’re sorry. The Web address you entered is not a functioning page on our site.” Try Barnes & Noble, no better luck. “Sorry, we could not find what you were looking for,” the site proclaims.” She does go on to say that it is not like the infamous “1984” incident where Amazon without any notice, deleted copies on everyone’s Kindles, since that has apparently not happened (yet!).

I looked for the book in Worldcat and found several copies, even in Dutch and German translations. I also looked on some torrent sites and there are several electronic versions there although of course, no one would ever download one!

I do find it telling that Jonah Lehrer is being lambasted for the lies he has told (as well he should) but that there have been several lies put about in the last few years, coming from the world of finance but not only there, and yet nothing much has happened to those people. I won’t pursue this since I would be getting into the area of politics.

Probably the publisher would like the libraries to return their copies of Lehrer’s book so that those can be pulped too, but as a librarian, I believe it is vital to keep these books. If we were to eliminate all the materials in our collections that were not “true” (as defined by …?) there would probably be relatively little left.

Nevertheless as a user of the catalog, when I see this record, I would want to be aware of the problems with this book. How could this be done? In the Worldcat record, there are user reviews, some very long, praising the book. At the end of the reviews there is one that mentions that parts were made up, but the person still likes the book. I don’t know how many people would read that far in the Worldcat reviews, though.

As a user I would also want to know that an article written by Jayson Blair in the New York Times from 2002 was made up, too. And continuing this viewpoint, the task becomes nightmarish because there are so many untruths! What about President Clinton? 

Or President Nixon?

Besides, I don’t think I would want the catalog to have codes for “truth” or “lies”.

We could say that in the radiant future of the Semantic Web where links are the solution to everything, all will work out, but I still believe that the Semantic Web, if it ever comes about, could just as easily be loaded with lies and spam as it could be loaded with truth and reason. Look at Essjay in Wikipedia, a high-level administrator, who claimed to be a tenured professor with Ph.Ds in theology and canon law but turned out to be some 24-year old guy who dropped out of community college.

Should the catalog tell someone that the item the user is looking at has untruths that are documented? Or should it keep silent about it? I don’t know. I could argue either side with equal conviction.