Not every emotional trauma is a legally compensable injury, but one -- the suffering of Lance Armstrong fans upon learning that Lance Armstrong's autobiographies It's Not About The Bike and Every Second Counts contained a few whopping misrepresentations -- has at least inspired a lovely and satisfying essay as consolation. Ian Crouch's New Yorker piece, "Satisfaction Not Guaranteed: Reading Lance Armstrong" uses a class action lawsuit filed against Armstrong and his publishers in California last week as a launching pad for a disquisition on truth, law, reading, writing, and character. A sample:
Short of a legal proceeding, how are disenchanted or disappointed readers to find redress? That question leads to others: What kind of commodity is a book? What can we expect a book to do for us? And are there particular situations in which we might expect to get our money back?
Many interactions with books are clearly transactional: if we buy a cookbook or a test-prep manual or a copy of “Spanish for Dummies,” we would rightly be angry if the recipes were harebrained, the test answers were incorrect, or all the language translations were in French. But can we clamor for a refund for the Julia Child cookbook we bought back in the sixties that we now realize has been poisoning our family with butter and salt for all these years?
Then there are other books, most books probably, all of which are clearly products, but which sell us something more ineffable. Perhaps people do send back detective novels when they don’t like who the killer was, or e-mail Amazon in a rage when “The Kama Sutra” puts their backs out. In the case of Armstrong, can we put a value or a standard of quality on being transported to a bike race in the French Alps, or being inspired to get in shape or fight back against a disease? And can we therefore put a negative value on the falsehoods in the book that muddle those experiences? Supposed nonfiction books fail some ethical test when they contain self-serving lies, or instances of plagiarism, or false reporting—but perhaps the negative Amazon review is the only real sword we can expect to wield. And, in the end, maybe books don’t do anything, neither in the conventional commercial sense nor in the limited emotional vocabulary of “inspiration” and self-improvement.