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Franzen's new novel to be pulped

Thousands of book buyers are reading the 'wrong' version of Jonathan Franzen's new book Freedom after an uncorrected version was printed in error.
An incorrect version of Jonathan Franzen's new book Freedom has been published in the UK, and ironically follows his last novel The Corrections. Courtesy HarperCollins UK and International
An incorrect version of Jonathan Franzen's new book Freedom has been published in the UK, and ironically follows his last novel The Corrections. Courtesy HarperCollins UK and International

Thousands of book buyers are reading the 'wrong' version of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom after an uncorrected version was printed in error. Ben East, who owns a copy, finds out if the mistakes matter and what his signed, rare edition is worth It's easily the most eagerly awaited literary novel of the year - and perhaps the new millennium. It's propelled its author to the front cover of Time magazine: the first novelist to be afforded that accolade for more than a decade. Jonathan Franzen's new book, Freedom, might have been nine years in the making, but that doesn't mean it's perfect. In fact, far from it.

Franzen sheepishly revealed at Freedom's UK launch last week that anyone who had rushed to the bookshops of Britain and picked up one of the first copies in the initial 80,000 print run, hadn't actually been reading the right version of his new opus at all. There were, he said, mistakes in the spelling, grammar and - most grievously - characterisation. There was something deliciously ironic in all of this: after all, Freedom was the follow-up to a three-million-selling book called The Corrections.

The irony doesn't stop there. The fictional book-within-a-book that comprises the opening exchanges of Freedom is called Mistakes Were Made. You can say that again. Over the weekend, Victoria Bardsley, the chief executive of Franzen's publisher, HarperCollins UK and International, was forced to "apologise profusely to Jonathan, his readers and our customers that our first edition of Freedom does not reflect the author's final, corrected version of the novel". In the same statement on the publisher's website, she urged readers to wait until a new version was printed. The first edition was pulped, and anyone who wants to exchange the "wrong" book for the final, fully corrected version, has been encouraged to do so. It's estimated that 8,000 people might not be enjoying Freedom as it was intended.

And that, incidentally, includes me. I went to my local bookshop on the first day of publication and queued up to buy a signed copy. But, though it pains a journalist to say it, I haven't actually noticed any mistakes as yet. I'm not finding any of the characterisation unconvincing - far from it. So far, it's a wonderfully acerbic and enjoyable book. As an "incorrect" version, it might also be the most valuable novel on my bookshelves... if it didn't have sand inside the jacket, since I bought it to read on my beach holiday.

"I'm sorry to dash your hopes, but I doubt it," laughs the London-based rare and antiquarian bookdealer David Dunbar. "A book that has mistakes in it does become more valuable and collectable, but the sheer amount already published and purchased means everybody will be putting this on eBay to see if they can make some money. You'll end up being lucky to get what you paid for it." Even though mine is signed?

"Well, that's slightly different. But unless the mistakes are really impairing your enjoyment of the book, I'd hold on to it for now. The story I've heard of how he found out - reading a section aloud to an audience and thinking: 'Hang on, this isn't the final version,' is probably more interesting and amusing than how much your copy might be worth." In any case, there's a whole industry around signed copies these days. It's hardly the big deal it once was. A few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon with the bestselling author Ken Follett. He's sold more than 100 million books, but the most incredible figure that day was the number of signed copies of his new book he'd got through. The tomes were literally stacked knee-high around the four walls of a big meeting room in his publisher's offices.

Recalling a Follett book, then, would be a really expensive undertaking. HarperCollins can probably afford to swap a few thousand copies of Franzen's Freedom - which is why all this smacks slightly of a publisher eager to keep an important literary novel in the headlines. Dunbar thinks this view is "spectacularly cynical" and suggests that I might grow to like the imperfections of my copy. I agree. I rather like the idea that I now, inadvertently, own a "special edition". One day, perhaps, when I've got far too much time on my hands, I'll compare it with how Franzen intended the book to be read. It'll be fascinating to try to understand why he felt it necessary to make changes.

As Dunbar puts it: "All books have mistakes in them - it's just that this is a huge cock-up because it's a major publishing event for HarperCollins." Certainly, we can put up with a few typographical, or even factual errors - here or there. Kathryn Stockett, the author of this year's bestseller The Help, told me recently that every time there's a new edition (and she's on to 20 now), a new mistake is corrected. But none has been sufficiently terrible to force a reprint in itself.

I get sent a lot of books by publishers that have the catch-all disclaimer "uncorrected book proof" on the bottom, so it's difficult to judge how bad a problem typos are - although they're bad enough on some of the versions I see. But I'll never forget my paperback version of Michael Frayn's award winning novel Spies - the pages were printed in the wrong order at the crucial part of the book. It's an intelligent, whodunnit-style thriller, but that was taking matters a little too far.

And sometimes, the pulping machine is the only answer: earlier this year, Penguin Australia realised that a misprint in a copy of The Pasta Bible suggested that the seasoning on a recipe for tagliatelle with sardines was a little meatier than usual: it asked for "salt and black people". And while there probably won't turn out to be anything as bad as that in Freedom, the whole story proves how endlessly fascinating book errors are. It might not turn out to be worth anything, but I think I'll keep hold of mine, just in case.

Published: October 7, 2010 04:00 AM

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