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.


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.

More recent examples abound. In 2006, Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan made headlines for plagiarizing her debut novel, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life; Little, Brown promptly recalled the 55,000 copies that had already been shipped. 2009 saw the recall of the Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization—a recall its editor likened to the "first instance of mass book-burning in the 21st century." In 2011, the new thriller Assassin of Secrets, by Q. R. Markham, was found instead to be an assassin of other people's work—and all 6,500 copies were recalled by Little, Brown. And just this summer, David Barton's The Jefferson Lies was recalled by publisher Thomas Nelson—apparently, it contained one too many lies itself.

The list is long, the offenses, many, and Imagine, just one more example to add to the growing pile. The recall itself is not the problem. The more pressing question is: What is the best way to retract a book in an age that is increasingly digital, where asking retailers to send back copies touches but a tip of the reading iceberg (in 2011, e-book sales surpassed print on Amazon for the first time; this year, the sales on Amazon's UK site followed suit)?

When Orwell pulled a Kindle disappearing act, David Pogue called Amazon's actions, "ugly for all kinds of reasons." Even though (as far as I know) no purchased copies of Imagine have disappeared off of electronic readers, the ugliness is just as strong in the current reaction to Lehrer's missteps. It is worrisome that the book has virtually disappeared from the most prominent online retailers—and the publisher itself. A simple note saying that sales have been halted pending further verification, or something to that effect, would have been a much more honest, transparent solution. When contacted for comment on the specifics of the decision, Amazon stated simply that, "At Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's request, we halted sales of 'Imagine' in all formats." No reply was made to the specific issue of how the request was handled. HMH did not provide a response, nor did Barnes and Noble.

The issue isn't suspending sales of a book so much as how a publisher goes about suspending them. Does the publisher publicly—and prominently—acknowledge the error by leaving everything as it was and just removing the ability for new readers to make a purchase until the book is reissued or otherwise amended, leaving the historical record intact, so to speak? Or does the publisher pretend as if a book just never existed? (Incidentally, Lehrer is not alone in having his publisher's record scrubbed, in a manner of speaking. A quick spot check showed that there are no traces of Q. R. Markham on Mulholland or Little, Brown's site; ditto Kaavya Viswanathan. And Fragments is nowhere to be found on Random House's search engine.)

Readers are increasingly reliant on digital sources for information—and they are increasingly reliant on these sources to be accurate. Of course, it's impossible to wipe out altogether the digital record of a book's existence. There will always be articles, analyses, used copies (you can still, for instance, get Imagine at Indiebound and Powell's). But the principle itself is a frightening one. Not only can you remove physical content—Orwell hasn't been the only one to disappear off of a Kindle device—but you can change, in a sense, the digital record. And what happens when there actually aren't any physical books behind those electronic versions—and then a publisher or retailer not only removes all links to the book in question, but then proceeds to remove the already purchased book from your reading device? Imagine: When all of your books are in digital form, what is the backup system if they are of a sudden removed?

An e-book is not a physical book. That point might seem trite until you stop for a moment to think how much simpler it is, in a certain sense, to destroy electronic than physical traces. There's no need of inciting mass cooperation in book-burning enterprises. No need for secret police or raids or extensive surveillance. The power to remove a book from a device, to remove all traces of it from retailers' websites, to expunge it from a publisher's online record: It would simplify the work of a would-be Soviet Union or Oceania multifold, would it not? It's ugly. For all kinds of reasons.