Amazon Conjures Orwellian Oceania

Amazon's battle with a publisher and authors took an Orwellian turn when the online giant inaccurately quoted the famous political fiction writer.Amazon seemingly has the pulse of everything, except for the views of George Orwell. Amazon's misquote offers a useful Orwellian lesson in citing authorities accurately.

Locked in a battle with book publisher Hachette and a host of well-known writers, Amazon is appealing to consumers to take its side. Amazon has scratched e-books published by Hachette from its online shelves, claiming it is trying to preserve the best value for its reader-customers. Hachette and members of Authors United counter that Amazon is flexing its muscle to seize more profit from book sales at the expense of booksellers, publishers and authors.

In addition to suggesting talking points for its supportive reader-consumers, Amazon cited Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty-four that described a world where people were convicted of thought crimes. The behemoth quoted Orwell as urging publishers to suppress paperbacks.

The quotation may have been more telling than Amazon's writers realized. In the superstate of Oceania, the Ministry of Truth was charged with rewriting past newspaper articles. What Orwell actually said was that the advent of paperback books was a boon for readers, but not so good for publishers. "The cheaper books become," Orwell said, "the less money is spent on books." He added, readers could use the savings to buy two tickets to the movies.

The misleading quotation by Amazon provoked an online uproar, especially among the cult-like followers of Orwell and guardians of online authenticity.

More important, the episode reinforced the common sense proposition that if you quote somebody, it should be an accurate or at least complete quote. Amazon's misread of what Orwell meant is like someone reading The Onion's satirical stories and mistaking them for real news.

Citing authorities is always tempting to validate a point you are making. But it can be tricky terrain unless you are absolutely sure the authority you invoke is on the same page as you.

In Amazon's case, Orwell was an especially bad choice for contorting his viewpoint. It made Amazonia seem eerily similar to Oceania. 

Even if a broad allusion isn't in the background of the issue you are trying to manage, you can do far more harm to your cause, if not your reputation, by bungling a reference.

Make your own case. Don't depend on political fiction writers.