the notion of edition in the digital age

In exploring the dark and dusty corners of the drafts folder, I found a piece that I’d started writing back in 2015. I’m not sure how I lost it or why I stopped working through the idea, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently.

In part, this revisitation comes from the materials I’ve been preparing for my class this semester and thinking through how they change from one year to the next, as I continue to work through the examples and navigate the ever-changing structure of the notes.

Another reason comes from the thinking I’ve been doing about a possible third edition of the Hyperbolic Geometry text book and what that might look like. There is a permanence to a book that I very much like; words on paper and once the words are printed, effort is required to shift them into other words. This is especially relevant in a field that’s moving quickly.

I’ve also been thinking about the couple of stories I’ve had published, as I’ve been persuaded to look for reprint possibilities for them, and this raises the question of the extent to which I might want to tinker.

This is a problem for readers as well as authors, and perhaps even a larger issue for readers. I’m not sure I’d want to buy a book knowing that the book might well shift and change, as the authors continues to shape and refine their work. It’s tricky, because I also want a book as well crafted as possible.

This brings to mind the old joke, that a paper or a story or a thesis are never finished, they are merely submitted. There is a variation on this theme, that a paper or a story is never finished, merely published. (And I do hate writing ‘merely’ and ‘published’ as consecutive words in any sentence.)

And so an answer to the question implicit in the title might then be, an edition is a snapshot, a moment in the life of a work, setting down a marker of sorts.

I do have great sympathy for the librarians and archivists, trying as best they can to track and keep a record of what’s being published. Trying as best they can to keep a record of these moments.

As a reader, I can see the benefits of constant updating, constant refining, but as noted above, there is also the frustration of the reader with having a constantly shifting piece of reading. I can also see the attraction to the author, wanting their work to be as good as it can possibly be.

But since we started making marks in clay tablets, we have been keepers of records. We have the notion of canon and we have a fondness of the version of record. I’m not sure what happens to all of these basic assumptions we make of the permanence of published works.

Perhaps it will depend on the purpose. I can see an educational text book shifting to reflect the class as taught; this might also reflect a change in teaching towards more of a challenge based structure on top of a basic syllabus, and so the underlying work might well need to shift to reflect this style of delivery.

l can see fiction having a more rigid structure, but it would be a curious thing to read, a story that shifted with the reader, almost like the old adventure books (‘there are two doors’). I’m not sure a human author would be able to keep up with the authorial demands, but might a rigid published story or novel find itself someday replaced by an extended conversation with an artificial intelligence? I’ll be interested to see.

~ by Jim Anderson on 2 March 2015.

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