“I feel like I’m supposed to be here,” he said.
Kathy was silent.
“It’s God’s will,” he said.
She had no answer to this . . .
Kathy rolled her eyes.
“Of course,” she said.
“I love you and them,” he said, and hung up.
—Dave Eggers, Zeitoun
Let's talk about Dave Eggers's Zeitoun. It's the story of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun, who survive Hurricane Katrina — Kathy because she left beforehand with their children, Abdulrahman through luck, resourcefulness, and bravery, but not without great despair. Their reunion is perpetually delayed by the strange machinations of governmental agencies who imprison Mr. Zeitoun and consider him a danger, not a hero. We could consider the book a call to action or an act of reportage. Fundamentally, though, it’s a love story.
That story became a whole lot more complicated earlier this month, when Abdulrahman was arrested for assaulting Kathy. Judging by its Amazon rankings, Zeitoun is flying off the shelves again. So what should the book’s publishers do? They’ve already ignored the couple’s divorce, but assaults and arrests are much more difficult to shrug off. It's hard not to read the telephone conversation I quoted above without a new sense of irony.
For print, the options are scant. Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine was recalled and refunds made available. They could print new editions with a preface or afterword, like James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. And let's not forget that the paperback edition of Eggers's first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, comes with the upside-down bonus section "Mistakes We Knew We Were Making: Notes, Corrections, Clarifications, Apologies, Addenda." Basically, that's how physical books are handled — as products of a specific moment, with cumbersome revisions.
But what happens with e-books? Technically, they can adapt to the shifting fortunes of their content. In Zeitoun, I'd love to see footnotes that acknowledge what Eggers couldn't have known earlier. I'd love the backstory to this statement to the press.
I’m reminded of Black Balloon publisher Elizabeth Koch’s essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books. She wonders what would happen “if, through evolving books, we could somehow shock ourselves awake enough to recognize that we hold the power to narrate, and live into, a different story of our lives.” As for readers, so for writers and their subjects: these e-bookscan change.
So far, evolving books are hard to come by. (Example? Oh, I don't know...there is Louise: Amended, the latest Black Balloon title.) But the possibilities are dizzying. A Farewell to Arms could incorporateHemingway's 47 alternate endings seamlessly, without an appendix. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance could let its readers map their own journeys onto Pirsig's — ditto for Kerouac. We've seen the Waste Land app, but what if we could pull up different performances of Waiting for Godot(especially Robin Williams and Steve Martin's run) whenever we wanted to see Beckett's words made flesh?
So many books can be unshackled from their origins in a specific time. The original words don't change, but our understanding of them does, and the possibilities are limited only by what our technology can do. We've invented e-books; now we can let them evolve.
image credit: flickr.com/photos/gruber