How to Make a Book Disappear

Jonah Lehrer's discredited Imagine has vanished from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and his publisher's website. Why that's bad news for readers.

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Two years ago, Kindle owners suffered the ultimate irony: Overnight, their (bought-and-paid-for) copies of George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm disappeared from their devices. Perhaps something had changed in the historical record that needed fixing, and when the books returned, Oceania would have always been at war with Eastasia, no questions asked? Perhaps Big Brother had decided that letting Kindle users read this parody of his rule wasn't quite as harmless as he'd previously hoped? Or maybe some Kindle books were just deemed more equal than others?

Amazon apologized. The specific copies of the books, a representative said, had been violating copyright laws and so had to be removed. Recalling the books without warning was not the best solution, Amazon admitted, and it wouldn't happen again.

This virtual disappearance was the first thing that came to my mind as I watched the publishing world's response to the scandal surrounding Jonah Lehrer's Imagine. At first, everything seemed fair enough: After it came out that several sections of Imagine were fabricated, publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said it would recall all copies of the book, reimbursing booksellers and readers both for the returns, and e-book sales would likewise be halted. Sounds reasonable. There is no need to perpetuate incorrect, fabricated, or plagiarized material. The publisher needs time to go through the work, correct mistakes, check content, and so forth.

Only, that's not the only thing that happened. 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.

Books a Million, perhaps? Nope. "No results for your search of 9780547386072." And if you get trickier and go directly to Mr. Lehrer's site, to follow the links to the publisher's page, you get sent to Eve Bunting's "The Presence: A Ghost Story." A further search of HMH's site yields no record of Imagine's ever having existed: If you look for its ISBN or visit Lehrer's bibliography, it's like he never wrote it at all. (In fact, How We Decide seems to be his only linked book. While Proust was a Neuroscientist is still on the HMH site independently, it is not linked to his profile. Mistake—or is there something we should know about in that one, too?)

There are now links to used copies on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble; original links to the items are still inactive, and at the original time of writing, there were no links at all, used or no. Lehrer's author site on Amazon still does not link to any of the marketplace vendors.

I can understand pulling a book whose contents have been questioned—after all, false information has a way of sticking in your brain and seeming true when you go to retrieve it years later. Book recalls are certainly nothing new, and they affect all manners of writing, from fiction that may be just a bit too fictional in the wrong way (read: plagiarism), to memoir that may not be quite as memorial as it was made out to be, to purportedly non-fictional works like Lehrer's Imagine. 1999, to take one example, was a particularly impressive year. In September, Grove/Atlantic junked 7,500 just-printed copies of James Mackay's I Have Not Yet Begun to Fight: A Life of John Paul Jones after "an absolutely scathing indictment" of plagiarism (apparently, Grove/Atlantic hadn't cared to investigate the fact that only a year prior, John Wiley & Sons had to withdraw Mackay's biography of Alexander Graham Bell and pulp all remaining copies, for the very same reason). That October, St. Martin's Press withdrew J. J. Hatfield's biography of George W. Bush, after information surfaced that the author was a convicted felon. And earlier in the year, multiple publishers recalled Binjamin Wilkomirski's Holocaust memoir, Fragments, after a Swiss historian's report showed that the author was actually named Bruno Dössekker—and that he'd never lived through the Holocaust in the first place, but was instead safely and comfortably ensconced in Switzerland for the war's duration.

Presented by

Maria Konnikova

Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes and the forthcoming book The Confidence Game. She is a contributing writer for The New Yorker, online.

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