The trouble with books and blogs: how to retract?

I have long considered that there is a real danger in getting non-fiction books published: the danger is that it’s hard not to make your claims a point of no return. Books are hard to retract, and very few authors ever do so. Not only is such an endeavor a hassle logistically, it’s unlikely to happen because of the embarrassment of saying that you have abandoned the beliefs that people spent money on and argued about. It’s not at all uncommon to find that authors change their minds on certain points and subtly revise previously published claims in subsequent books, but the original book is still out there, still evading the caveats they make in later published works.

I have a couple friends who worked together very long and very hard on a book. When it was published, the book was popular among many and it got them a bit of a cult following among a small subsection of Christians. It was controversial, though, and so they had to forcefully contend for their views in a number of venues; the debates got attention and became good publicity. Certain key aspects of their arguments, though, were untenable, and I think it became obvious even to them that this was the case. However, what do you do with such a phenomenon as they had cooked up? Do you call your groupies together and tell them that you recant significant aspects of your arguments, or do you merely emphasize the old stuff and subtly revise your faulty arguments? (Or do you pick yourself up off the ground and continue as though nothing had happened?)

I often consider that if my friends had simply started a site and argued their stuff piece by piece in a rolling, ever-changing, blog-like fashion, they would have created a community of people engaging them and their arguments rather than a monolith of belief that would be exceedingly hard to modify in a useful way. They didn’t mean to create a monolith of belief: that was just an unintended consequence of publishing a book.

It’s completely fine to want to jot down and distribute what you believe to be true, but the arguments published in books are no mere lines in the sand: they’re kitty footprints in the sidewalk’s cement.

For awhile it seemed to me that periodical-style publishing, blogs for instance, would be far preferable. By and large I still think that this is the case, but now looking back over my own blog, I see that the problem with blogs is, though slightly different, closely related. In fact, the remedy for the problem with books ends up causing its own problem.

See, the nature of my blog, as with many blogs, is one of new discovery and changing views. There are things that were published on this site years ago that argue viewpoints I am incredibly embarrassed of nowadays. More importantly, anyone who stumbled upon them via Google or a search on my own site would be dramatically misled about what I believe. Yes, more so than with books, it’s the new stuff that’s most readily available and accessible — but as with books, what do we do with that old, out-of-date material?

There’s the option of going back through and “archiving” the posts, either by hiding them (deleting them?) or moving them into a section headed with a disclaimer about expired material. There’s also the option of going back into them and adding links to new blog posts in which the original views have been modified. This is all so labor intensive, so at the moment I just let the old stuff go and mislead people, cringing when I see in my website stats that someone has accessed one of them.

So, fellow bloggers, what should we do about this? Do you share my misgivings about print copy books?

Tagged with:
Recent Posts: