Schizophrenic books

See the book on the left. It’s been around for centuries, issued by countless publishers, translated into many tongues… and no one ever doubted what it was, because it has a name: Macbeth.

Macbeth and Edison's Eve

Now see the book on the right. This is Edison’s Eve: a magical history of the quest for mechanical life, by Gaby Wood, published in New York by Alfred A. Knopf. An interesting book, actually; but it has one strange aspect: the first half of the book is about the history of lifelike automata – Vaucanson’s duck, the Turk chess player, Edison’s speaking dolls and so on; just as the title promises. The second half is all about little people who appeared in circuses and sideshows in times past, such as the Doll family in the 1920s, which seems rather off-topic. The incongruity was resolved for me abruptly when I noticed a line on the copyright and catalog info page at the back of the frontispiece: “Originally published in Great Britain as Living Dolls by Faber and Faber limited, London”. Now that title makes sense and links the two parts of the book correctly.

So, we have the same book sold in two countries under different names: the original name sensible, the later poorly thought out and confusing (amazingly, the Amazon site says people who bought one also bought the other…) Nor is this a unique case: I’ve seen this with non-fiction a number of times.

I’m sure the publishers had weighty reasons for this mutilation of the book’s name: one can envision considerations of marketing, or potential lawsuits, the usual corporate stuff. But these are books; books deserve respect. You don’t rename Macbeth to “Scandal in Dunsinane”, nor to “Blood, sex and sorcery”, just because it may sell more in some country. Leave our books alone!

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