When a good book gets things wrong...

I’m in the middle of a rather upsetting new experience. It’s so upsetting that I want to talk about it here, but because I’m in the middle I don’t want to give details because I might be over-reacting or misreading. But…

I’ve just bought a popular science book that describes a long scientific investigation and its results. As such books do, it goes into some detail about the characters and motivations of the investigators, which gives something like the narrative drive of fiction. I’ve read lots of book like this, many with great pleasure, and in many ways I’m enjoying this one too. The trouble is that I knew some of the people it describes and these descriptions don’t match the people I knew. The least realistic characterisations are of people who died before the book was started (based on information in the author’s notes) and it’s not hard to see where the author’s picture came from.

All the reviews I’ve seen concentrate on the science and the discovery process, apart from a few comments about how the book is a page turner and written like a thriller - pretty standard review-speak for this kind of book now I come to think of it. So maybe people wouldn’t remember the characters, and what feels to me like a smear on the name of one friend and a dismissal of another would simply not be noticed by most readers.

I might still just be shocked at what I’ve read, and maybe when I read it again it’ll just look like a difference in perspective. I hope so. I don’t like this feeling.

Does anyone here write this kind of book? Does accuracy in representing the “fascinating characters” (they’re always “fascinating”) matter as much as accuracy in representing the data, the reasoning, the errors, and the discoveries? How would you react to a letter from a reader giving you a different picture of one of the fascinating characters, which casts a different light on some of the others? That would be a friendly letter expressing genuine admiration for the book as well as saying “You got snowed” - in the nicest possible way. Has anyone ever written such a letter in such a situation? Or decided not to?

Dunno. Maybe I just want to howl at the moon because the book reminds me how much I miss my friend.

Books!!! BAH HUMBUG.


I opened up the “big” book by Nikos Kazantzakis, something about christ.

The first page was someone chewing on roasted maize, sweetcorn, which didnt appear from the Americas till the 16th century. Not BC Palestine.
I threw the book in the bin and lived happily everafter.


On the sillier side of “books getting it wrong” (which would make an interesting thread in itself, and so I might split this thread if others chime in with similar), the following were the most glaring and stupid for me (I even wrote to the publisher’s about the David Mitchell one, suggesting that all they had to do was change ONE word in a future edition to fix it, but - unsurprisingly - never heard back):

Bo Fowler, Scepticism Inc (a blatant “homage” to Kurt Vonnegut, but one that I really enjoyed nonetheless, and I do wish Fowler had gone on to do more than he did): This starts with someone dying in a supermarket on the 16th June 1998, and a priest who is partly responsible and his followers barricading themselves in a church. There is a shoot-out and the only survivor is a baby: “The baby who survived was Edgar Malroy.” 1998; he’s very specific about that. Then, in the very next chapter, we come across this troublesome sentence, delivered by the narrator (an intelligent shopping trolley): “I first met Edgar Malroy in 2024. He had just been expelled from his college. He was twenty-three and I was just two years old.” Um… Okay… So, Edgar is a baby in 1998 but still only 23 in 2024? Where did the other three years go?

Nick Cave, And the Ass Saw the Angel (beautifully written, and my better half loves this book; I never finished it, although it’s the sort of book I think I should have): Okay, I can’t actually remember what it was that bugged me about this one. I know it bugged me so much that I found it difficult to continue reading. It was a numbering mistake - a date that didn’t work or some such. I just looked through the beginning but I can’t quite be bothered to spend half an hour just to find a pernickety mistake. I think it has to do with the table in Chapter III of Book One, but maybe not. Maybe I was wrong. It happens (but not often :slight_smile: ).

David Mitchell, Number9Dream (fantastic book apart from the dreadful goat writer, which makes you wonder why he has so badly tried to ape Murakami that he even stole his sheep man, when his style was quite captivating enough on its own): Part Four, “Reclaimed Land”, begins thus: “So this is how I die, minutes after midnight on reclaimed land somewhere south of Tokyo bay. I sneeze, and the swelling in my right eye throbs and nearly ruptures. Sunday, 17th September.” The narrative then backtracks a few days, covering events leading up to this moment. But the narrative only goes up to Friday night, the events of which lead to the narrator being in this situation… Making the day Saturday, not Sunday. One word!

Anyway, these are all rather pedantic criticisms of otherwise very fine books, all well-worth reading. It just bugs me that they weren’t picked up in the copy-editing process - surely that’s the whole point of a copy-editing process? Authors are bound to be too close to see certain errors that will be glaring to readers, but the number of layers those books go through before getting out should mean that the errors are fixed before reaching the shelves…

Anyway, this has little to do with the original post - I’ll add comments to that in a separate post just in case I have to separate this in two threads.


ghoti - My partner is a science journalist and, although as yet she has not written anything book length, she does write long-ish articles about scientific discoveries, past and present, and sometimes involving people who are dead. One of the problems she faces in doing this is that - of course - you don’t get to speak to everyone in the course of your research. Although you would expect someone writing a book to be a lot more thorough in their research than someone writing an article - especially if they are going to try and sketch the characters - I’m sure the same is true by necessity for such an author. Another problem is, of course, professional rivalry. I remember last year she was covering a technical milestone in the history of an international corporation for their in-house magazine, and part of it was writing about the people involved, one of whom was dead. She had a terrible time with the article simply because of the conflicting reports she received of the deceased. Most accounts had him as the leading light in the development of this particular technology; she spoke to people who had worked with him during his career and, I believe, to his son or some such. But one interviewee had a long-standing professional rivalry with the deceased, and unfortunately he was also the only person left alive who had worked alongside him on this particular project. He was dismissive of the deceased’s contributions, and would not accept the accounts of others, saying that they had no idea because they weren’t there.

I say all of this just because it may well be that the journalist/author did his or hers best with the facts as they had them. I do think it is almost certainly worth writing a letter to him or her, though, so long - obviously - as you bear all of this in mind and word it carefully so as not to offend or accuse the author. My partner doesn’t mind polite letters pointing out where she went wrong, but it justifiably riles her to receive petty rants that seemingly expect her to be omniscient in her knowledge. If the book isn’t very popular, then it will be out of print in a few years and will thus have no effect on the long the long-term memories of your friends. However, if the book does well, it may one day go into a second edition, in which case the author may have the opportunity to amend the errors concerning your friends (providing it doesn’t just come down to a difference in perspectives after all and the errors are factual, of course).

Sorry to hear it upset you so much.
All the best,

KB, your examples of fictional bad timing above make a powerful case for Matt’s Aeon Timeline.

It’s been my fate to appear in tangential roles in several biogs of other people. The stories they tell are almost all error-strewn to a greater or lesser extent when they discuss events in which I participated - in my view. One becomes philosophical about it. There are worse fates. As a journalist who strove for accuracy, I nonetheless believe accuracy is a percentage game, hedged by constraints such as memory, perception, ego and time*.

As with journalists, so to a degree with non-fiction authors. One comes to recognise that a book is just a view; there is sometimes, as Keith says, a second edition, and occasionally the possibility of another book with a different view.

*In my experience the egos of some scientists can exceed those of some politicians and entertainers (see for example the story of the discovery of the structure of DNA, and its telling).


Sometimes accurate at the time leads to fallacy in the future. (Hindsight is 20/20)

Sometimes authors take liberty with facts and reality.

One of the biggest “mistakes” I have seen in many books is simple science.

(Resident Evil 2 as an example of this). I am going to use a movie as an example but it is seen in many books.

Ok how can a woman weighing 105 lbs run at a creature that ways over 800lbs, kick him with one leg and manage to send 800lbs flying across the room by just a well aimed kick?

Could a 40lb 3 year old knock over a linebacker for the Steelers with nothing more than a kick to the chest?

I think that whole mass thing eludes many action authors. :slight_smile:

Thanks people, and especially thanks to Keith for your partner’s view from the science journalist’s perspective and Hugh from the victim’s.

I’ve been checking facts and recollections and it’s become clear that the author stopped researching much sooner than the text implies. I’ve even spoken with people named in the acknowledgements who deny ever being contacted at all. I intend to write to the author and possibly to the publisher, but I don’t just want to rant: I want the book corrected.

Assuming I can convince everyone involved that changes should be made, the question becomes when should they be made:

  1. How hard is it to change text between hardcover and paperback if the changes can be made without affecting the layout of unchanged pages? I fully realise that’s a hard challenge for writer and editor, but I’m assuming it’s much cheaper than changing and checking the layout of whole chapters.

  2. What’s a normal length of time from from finalising the text, illustrations, and layout to having physical books ready for distribution? The reason for asking this is that the publisher’s website shows a publication date for the paperback edition and I’d like to know if there’s any chance at all of getting changes into that.

Oddly enough I still think this book does a good job on its real subject. I’m still upset, and getting very angry, about the mis-characterisations, but I’m also sorry for the author because I think the problems might have come from pressure to increase the page count beyond what the material can really bear.

Thanks again,


Yah!! So let us consider the genre of “faction”. One of my pet examples comes from the life of Fergie. I was fascinated to read direct quotations of her discussions about a divorce settlement in Australian dollars. For one happy moment I thought we must have been turning into a tax haven, but so far it hasn’t happened.

Oh come now. A man weighing 105 lbs might have trouble with 800lbs of creature, but a woman? Easy peasy, and just a little bit of witchcraft.

Heh Heh Heh


Witchcraft eh?

I should have listened to Santana a little more closely. :slight_smile:

I believe a little physics will prove that a 105LB woman could move a 800LB monster. Likewise the 40LB monster could move a linebacker.

Indeed! A 105 pound person fired at an 800 pound monster at a velocity of 600 miles per hours would move the 800 pound monster, or at least significant portions of its material substance in an oval shaped cloud.

See. It is possible. Now the question is was survival ever called out as a requirement? No it wasn’t.

I’ve investigated the background further, and I now know for certain that the author made no contact with anyone close to my friend during the research for this book except for one colleague who lives in a different country. I have also been told, but only from one source, that the author did not have direct input from a separate team whose work is described in apparent detail and that many of the details are wrong. I still haven’t written my letter to the author, but when I do it will be less friendly than I first thought.

Next question for the Scriveners: What do you think of the convention of using invented direct quotations in popular books that purport to tell the story of a discovery. My favourite example of what I mean comes from a different context, namely a magazine story about Fergie’s divorce settlement which “quoted” Fergie heatedly discussing amounts in Australian dollars. It wasn’t hard to pick that one as a quotation by courtesy at best, but this book I’m fretting uses direct quotations from people I know who don’t talk like that and who flatly deny both words and substance.

I understand the story-telling reasons for these apparent quotations. But what’s the ethics here? The situation seems like those TV docos that reconstruct historical events and must also construct conversations that were never recorded and might not have happened. For current events those things tend to whack a big label on the screen that says “Reconstruction”. I think that’s often as some kind of legal protection, but isn’t there an ethical obligation as well?

And another question: How culpable are agent, editor and publisher in this story? I said in my first post that I thought the book showed signs of padding to meet a word count. I’ve now heard from two sources that it was written very quickly, although no one has tried to specify numbers of months or weeks (it’s definitely not years). It’s a major publisher and I believe this is the author’s first book. Is anyone apart from the author responsible for ensuring that invention is not masquerading as history.

Anyone confronted this in their own work? How good is a pressing deadline as an excuse?

Thanks all,