Is this viral? I received a strange book...
November 12, 2008 1:46 PM   Subscribe

Is this viral? I got a strange book unexpectedly in the mail.

I got a book in the mail yesterday. It came from Sweden, with sufficient postage. It was in a white envelope, with my name and work address written by hand in pen. On the envelope, there was also a note that said "Will tell you more when I return!" Inside was a white volume, hardback, called "Being or Nothingness", with the well known picture by Escher on the cover of two hands recursively drawing each other. The author is given as "Joe K". There is also a sticker that says "Warning! Please study the letter to Professor Hofstadter before you read the book. Good Luck!".

Inside the front cover is, indeed, a neatly typed letter to Doug Hofstadter, with the right Bloomington address etc. It is dated Nov 9, 2006. It relates to what is presumably a prior acquaintance between the letter writer and Hofstadter. The letter is signed "The Writer". I'd reproduce the whole letter, as this is getting interesting at this stage, but then I'd have to do the same for the whole book, because it is an interesting little text, quite incoherent in an artistic way, that mingles themes from Hofstadter's Strange Loop, Douglas Adams, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The text is vaguely related to some christian themes, but also to recursion and the meaning of life.

Now, I have no idea who sent this, nor can I imagine anyone I know in Sweden doing so (although this is the second time I have received mysterious mail from Sweden. The first time did turn out to be personal).

So I search on the internet and find only one clear reference to this book:

Clearly, he received something very similar, with the same message written by hand on the envelope.

If this is viral marketing, WTF? it is certainly elaborate, hugely planned, and quite expensive. Pic here.

Disclaimer: I actually know Doug Hofstadter slightly from my student days. I have expressed admiration for his writing occasionally on the internet, but not published anything big that mentioned him or anything.

What do you think?
posted by fcummins to Grab Bag (40 answers total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
It seems obvious to me that "Joe K" is a reference to Josef K in The Trial.

Seems like others have received it as well.
posted by grouse at 1:58 PM on November 12, 2008

Just to add to the references involved:
Being and Nothingness is Sartre's seminal work on Existentialism
"Josef K" is the main character of Kafka's The Trial

Both authors are highly critical of religion and other institutions, so this may be an attempt to leech intellectual credibility for the mystery book.
posted by cowbellemoo at 1:59 PM on November 12, 2008

Response by poster: Interestingly, yes, it would be too much of a pain. I guess I'm not a good vector for this meme. But that's surely sufficient description to find out what kind of thing this is...
posted by fcummins at 1:59 PM on November 12, 2008

The expensiveness factor rules out the viral theory, unless the campaign is counting on their carefully-selected targets to ponder about the mysterious book online.

Why don't you ask Hofstadter (and if you get a response, please report back!)? Seems like the kind of thing he'd appreciate.
posted by Beardman at 2:01 PM on November 12, 2008

Why don't you ask Hofstadter?

...That isn't to say I'm assuming the letter is real. But if they went to trouble of finding his correct address and sending it to someone who (presumably non-coincidentally) knows him, then it's possible that they're the sort to also have been in contact with D.H. What kind of contact, who knows. Maybe they sent him some random mysterious shit too.
posted by Beardman at 2:04 PM on November 12, 2008

Response by poster: I knew of the Kafka and Sartre references, and I know the Kafka, and its not a big part of the "plot". I don't know the Sartre. Perhaps I am becoming a vector, because I am willing to work this much to discuss it. So I'll quote a bit:

He got up and went to the bookshelf, the mouse slowly following him. B reached for Goedel, Escher, Bach, a book by Hofstadter where these issues are discussed. Unfortunately the book next to it was knocked over and fell straight towards the mouse.

posted by fcummins at 2:05 PM on November 12, 2008

Is there something about who you are or what you do that would make you a good vector for viral marketing, if that's what this is?
posted by RustyBrooks at 2:06 PM on November 12, 2008

Response by poster: It has crossed my mind that this might be an exercise in applied memetics, with Doug Hofstadter behind it all. But then, I'm a dreamer:)
posted by fcummins at 2:06 PM on November 12, 2008

Response by poster: RustyB. I'm not sure. I'm a philosophically minded cognitive scientist, but not well known at all. Yet, looking at the amazon reviews, and this discussion, it appears that it is succeeding in getting people to peel it apart collectively. That's surprising. Now I'm really wondering if DH isn't behind this. I don't think I'll ask: our acquaintance is slight. But I might if it persists. I cant follow this for a few days. I'll report back on Monday.
posted by fcummins at 2:10 PM on November 12, 2008

Response by poster: I might, Burhan., (but I would grumble about being a slave to the meme if I did:), but I'm off traveling for a few days, and don't have the opportunity.
posted by fcummins at 2:11 PM on November 12, 2008

Response by poster: A lot of the structure is based on 7 days of creation, with pages headed "the {first|second...|seventh} day after I stopped writing the book". Days 4 and 5 have no more in them than an injunction to read pertinent sections of the old/new testament.

There is a bit of a nutty (to my jaundiced eye) faux-Christian tone to it that does not sound like DH at all.
posted by fcummins at 2:20 PM on November 12, 2008

This sounds like the launching of an ARG.
posted by 517 at 2:21 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Some other recipients - 1, 2.
posted by zamboni at 2:21 PM on November 12, 2008

Response by poster: 517: Wow! Could be. A peculiar one, if ever there were one. We might all be playing now, of course.
posted by fcummins at 2:25 PM on November 12, 2008

Response by poster: Could it be both? Viral for DH's next thing, and structured as an ARG? That would be some serious propaganda, reminiscent of Edward Bernaise in the Century of Self.
posted by fcummins at 2:30 PM on November 12, 2008

Hold the letter closely over a lamp or try the iodine vapor test on the letter. There may be some secret writing on it in another type of ink. (I may have just gone crazy)
posted by 517 at 2:39 PM on November 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

No joy. It appears the punch line is "choose faith."
posted by 517 at 3:00 PM on November 12, 2008

More book info.
posted by zamboni at 3:11 PM on November 12, 2008

It's an ad for a ski resort.
posted by niles at 3:13 PM on November 12, 2008 [8 favorites]

Oh geez. The viral is working on me at least, because after this:

I have just read the book. It is completely incomprehensible. I do not know whether on purpose or the author is schizophrenic, or it has a subliminal message / virus Neurolingüística done the nam-shub of Enki :-). I was afraid of being made a silly Mané The Secret, but is non-sense muuuuuito more bizarre Judeo-Christian-Sherlock Holmes-hitchhiker's-guide-to-the-galaxy that.

I need to find a copy of this book :)
posted by naju at 3:36 PM on November 12, 2008

Maybe he just really thinks ahead.
posted by baphomet at 5:15 PM on November 12, 2008 [2 favorites]

See, it is viral, cause now I wanna see what all the fuss is about.

Or maybe not. Earlier this year I got a book in the mail that had been signed by Clive Barker, but didn't have a note in it. Which I thought was strange, since I've known Clive for 20+ years, and I've never asked him to sign a book. So I sent him a note and said "Hey, thanks for the book." And he was confused. So we were both confused. Turns out it was a friend of mine at a bookstore in San Francisco, who saw Clive at a signing, knew that I had a bunch of Clive's books and paintings, got me a copy of the book thinking it would be a great present, mailed it, and forgot to include a note inside. Mystery eventually solved.

Point of my long anecdote, is that the vector is probably someone who knows you, and either knows the author or knows that you find the subject interesting.

Also; can I read it when you're done?
posted by dejah420 at 5:29 PM on November 12, 2008

As someone with more curiosity than common sense, I went ahead and ordered one of the two Amazon copies after confirming with the seller that it was indeed the book in question, mysterious letter and all.

I'm afraid I've got nothing to help with fcummins questions and conjecture, but for those curious to read the book, I'd be more than happy to scan it when it arrives. I suppose I'll follow up in this thread once that actually happens.
posted by CheshireCat at 6:56 PM on November 12, 2008

You got this? I'm a religion journalist and I didn't get a copy! Can you send me yours? We'll do a story about it on my old public radio show. This is something I've heard about before they started mailing it. It's funny, because an editor from a large Evangelical publisher owned by a major newspaper and television company suggested doing this at the American Academy of Religion conference in October of 2006. I am really pleased someone made this happen, but the response has been as perplexing as I expected.
posted by parmanparman at 7:00 PM on November 12, 2008

Write to Doug. I would bet money he isn't behind it - faux-Christian stuff is definitely not his bag - but I bet he'd like to know his name is being used by a strange person to lend some manner of legitimacy to ravings and/or a marketing stunt. Probably someone has already poked him about it, in which case maybe he'll be able to shed some light.
posted by crinklebat at 7:52 PM on November 12, 2008

Seriously, it sounds like the plot of Sophie's World. Maybe someone is using the plot for a promotion or art project or something.
posted by peggynature at 2:28 AM on November 13, 2008

Could Joe K. = Joke, perhaps?
posted by misteraitch at 4:09 AM on November 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

parmanparman: So wait. Some editor suggested sending this book two years ago? Care to elaborate? Is it a form of Christian viral marketing as the Ironwolf link suggests?
posted by niles at 6:52 AM on November 13, 2008

Best answer: I feel the Swedish connection needs to be fleshed out a bit more.

's link to the Uppsala University's library catalogue entry mentions a "Per Norfeldt" as the book's translator into Swedish. Norfeldt's name shows up in this 2007 apparent book round-up in Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet which mentions the book.

Apparently, Per Norfeldt is purported to have translated "Being or Nothingness" by "Joe K" from the English under the title "Varat eller Intet". (The picture in the Uppsala Uni catalogue checks out.)

That title (excluding "Sartre" in the query for obvious reasons) renders a modestly larger number of interesting Google hits than its English equivalent. It has vanished from this book-related site, but the Google cache seemingly speaks of a first Swedish edition and "Mjölby: Atremi, 2007", presumably with Mjölby being a placename and Atremi the publisher I suppose.

Here's its entry on a "write a book review" site that has no user content (yet) but does offer the "Publisher's description" (machine translation -- link is blind but hover for Swedish):
Einstein stopped back time in the room and suddenly changed the laws of physics. What would happen if we did the same for the human sciences?
You are welcome to try, but remember you for an extra time. Now it is not good enough with a "thinking observer," you must become a part of the project!
Make sure you are properly on your feet, and pray a prayer ...
... if you come away with life in the reservoirs!
This blurb is echoed on several other sites.

Here's the book on an eBay clone.

All the above seems to suggest to me that the book is real and perhaps slightly less obscure to the Swedish market than it is in its English incarnation, at least Google-wise. However, its frequent appearance on (and rare appearances outside of) antiquarian stores' websites -- in NW continental Europe at least, an "antiquariat" is, unlike its English counterpart (Dutch antiquariaat, Swedish antikvariat, and so on) not so much a merchant of antiques but rather where books are dumped in bulk and sold cut-rate, not unlike NYC's Strand Books I guess but smaller and without the new releases -- suggests its apparent "straight-to-video" nature.

For the sake of clarity, I'm Dutch and I can read German, so while I don't read Swedish it is familiar enough to me to make out some key words like "antiquariat" and "book review", but anything above that bar and I have to make do with machine translation.

There are currently three reviews of the English version on Amazon, one of which is from someone who claims to be another recipient of the mystery package. The two others are ambiguous but can be interpreted as hinting at being from recipients as well.

Most intriguingly (saving the best for last, aren't I?), "Antikvariat Thomas Andersson" lists the book as
[DOUGLAS HOFSTADTER] JOE K. Varat eller intet. Översättning av Per Norfeldt.
This seems to imply that Joe K is a pseudonym for Hofstadter. The obvious alternative would be
a keyword categorization, in that the book mentions Hofstadter or his writings, but this seems unlikely: if so, why not include more names as keywords? Also, I could not replicate this for other books using a couple more basic queries on the site search. (Feel free to try this and prove me wrong, please!)


Now, what questions stand, and what do we know?


1a. Who sent the package?

This is the big one.

1b. What's the motive?

The other big one. ARG? Seems unlikely to me, too narrow in scope. I couldn't exclude it yet, though. Viral book promotion? Very much possible, although we'd need more details. Lone wacko? Well, Joe K promoting his book by himself this way at the surface (and at the moment) seems sort of acceptable given the info we have, but it does not reconcile the outstanding matters of the ambiguity as to the source language (as mentioned in one of the letters), and the fact that the recipients seem loosely to have something in common occupation-wise.

1c. Who received the package?

A seemingly disparate group of people have received this book in the post along with a letter addressed to Douglas Hofstadter dated November 9, 2006 and signed "The Writer", and a letter addressed to the "Chief Editor" at Basic Books in New York dated March 17, 2007 and signed "The Translater" [sic]. Both letters bear a butterfly as an apparent sort of logo.

1d. Why them?

It seems that more than one of them seems to work in academia, some apparently in fields not unlike Hofstadter's; cognitive science, applied linguistics and logic or mathematics come to mind. Recipients: who are you guys? What kind of work do you do? It would help if you got together somehow. Use the internets!


2a. Who is the author of "Being or Nothingness"?

"Joe K" is apparently a pseudonym. Douglas Hofstadter is mentioned by Antikvariat Thomas Andersson, as well as in the sent material.

2b. What's in the book?

None of the recipients have yet stepped forward to provide the contents of the (surprisingly short) online; come on guys -- you owe this to the internets. Scan it and post it on Scribd.

2c. In what language was the book originally written?

Seemingly it was translated to Swedish from the English original, but the "Translater" letter mentions that the "English original vanished shortly after its appearance".

2d. In what language was the book sent to the recipients?

Again, judging by the reports, seemingly it's English. But the "Translater" letter apparently implies the enclosed book is in Swedish. Just to be clear, in what language was the book fcummins received? How about the other recipients?


3a. What does Douglas Hofstadter know about this?

Contact Hofstadter.

3b. Why does Antikvariat Thomas Andersson list "Douglas Hofstadter" as an apparent pseudonym for "Joe K"?

Contact ATA.


And yes, I got here by way of the Metafilter Podcast, the most recent incarnation of which mentions this thread.

Carry on.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:28 PM on November 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

goodnewsfortheinsane: an antikvariat (in Sweden at least), is just a second-hand bookseller, and could equally well mean a dealer in remainders, rarities, or both. Anyway, I was intrigued enough by all this to order a copy of Varat eller intet from Antikvariat Thomas Andersson. If the mystery's not solved in the meantime, I'll post some details as & when I get it.
posted by misteraitch at 1:08 AM on November 19, 2008

Cool. That would be awesome.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:18 AM on November 19, 2008

One more data point: a friend of mine in the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge reports receiving an identical package, despite having no connection to Dr. Hofstadter. At this point, my money is on this whole thing being the actions of an extremely well-organized and well-funded crank, but who knows?
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:56 AM on November 20, 2008

This psychedelic-looking video of a frat boy telling a Hofstadter rock & roll story (really, it's quite entertaining) seems to support the lone crackpot theory. (via comment at muriloq)
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 3:06 PM on November 25, 2008

If anyone is curious to see the Swedish version of this book, I've uploaded a PDF of some scans here.

Some initial observations:

- On the front cover is a sticker with a Swedish text which reads 'Warning: read the letter to Prof. Hofstadter before beginning the book. Good luck!'
- The letter itself is in English.
- On the copyright & publisher info page it states that the original title is 'Being or Nothingness' and that the translation into Swedish was done by Per Norfeldt. Next to the © symbol there is only the word 'Författaren' (meaning 'the Author'). The publisher's address and contact info are given, as is the name of the printers, based in the town of Kristianstad - who are also given, so I understand, as the printers of the English 'Being or Nothingness' volumes. The ISBN is (978)-91-85487-31-7.
- On the title-page is a 'typescript' comment which translates as 'This letter is a copy of a manuscript that arrived the other day, sender unknown. This must be the first and last post-postmodern work! Regards, R'
- The Dedication (page 6) points to 'Joe K.' being a reference to the protagonist of Hermann Hesse's novel 'The Glass Bead Game.'
- Copies of the English edition have a word apparently cut out from one particular page: this is not the case in the Swedish version.

I do wonder though, that this could be a whole lot of overthinking... The Aftonbladet review goodnewsfortheinsane linked to above is brusquely dismissive of 'Joe K.' calling him a "quasi-intellectual gymnasist [i.e. a senior high-school student, or, in British parlance, a sixth-former] among thousands of others..."
posted by misteraitch at 12:34 AM on November 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

A couple of things lead me to speculate that the ostensible translator of Varat eller Intet may well in fact be its author. First, the narrator of the video linked by goodnewsfortheinsane above mentions that the letter in the book was written by 'a Swedish psychologist.' Second, a white pages search at the Swedish directory site finds only two listings matching the translator's name: one of which is connected with a Gothenburg-based consulting company described elsewhere as being concerned with psychotherapy, psychoanalysis & the like. And third, recipients of the parcel say it was despatched from Gothenburg.
posted by misteraitch at 1:50 PM on November 26, 2008

Alright, I went ahead and made a high quality scan of the book. It's at a printable resolution right now, but if someone wants to bundle it as a PDF, adjust the sizes for internet display, or put it up at Scribd or something, by all means be my guest. Anyway, enjoy the book, and if there's any trouble with the files or links, let me know.

Two options for downloading; you can either get a file of just the jpgs here [1][2] 15.5 MB

Or you can get it as a file formatted for use with the CDisplay comic book reader (the installer for which is also included). I prefer this format over PDFs in terms of readability, and as a bonus you can simply change the extension from .cbr to .rar if you want to get access to the individual jpgs. [1][2] 16.6 MB

Notes on the obvious differences with the Swedish edition:

The back cover has completely different text, and it lacks the ISBN numbers. The name of the original publisher, Atremi, is missing from the back, the spine, and the bottom of the first page containing the M.C. Escher drawing.

The page preceding the title page was physically cut out from the book. In the Swedish version, this contained all the publisher information.

Page thirteen has a small section physically cut out from the text. The missing words are "past and future" in the Swedish edition. Placing the letter behind the page, with the bottom of the letter flush with the bottom of the page, highlights the words "faith and choice" through the cut out section, though this may be nothing more than an interesting coincidence.
posted by CheshireCat at 6:16 PM on November 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

That was basically my reaction Burhanistan. I was surprised how clumsy it seemed in some ways. I guess I was hoping that its strangeness and intertextuality would be closer to the polished level seen in House of Leaves. Going back through it to scan it I had to admit that I enjoyed the Douglas Adams bit, and the general layout of it all was oddly compelling, but the overall message really did nothing for me. I suppose its major redeeming quality is that none of this has definitively answered the OP's question yet, though the extra information in the Swedish version seems like it might be the key to that.
posted by CheshireCat at 9:22 PM on November 26, 2008

Best answer: the cane toad at muriloq:
Professor Doug Hofstadter has very kindly replied to my email. I hope he will not mind me quoting the relevant part of his response:
“I have nothing whatsoever to do with the book, in any way, shape, or form. Its author is a Swedish psychiatrist (I believe that’s his profession, anyway), and for his own very personal reasons, he undertook to write this book and to contact me many many times (I replied extremely minimally one time about two years ago) and then to print it and distribute it all over the place. I have no idea what the book is about or why he’s doing all this.”
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 7:36 PM on November 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So, the mystery lives on. I'm still not gonna scan the whole thing and upload it. Frankly, its not that good, and the mystique it generates is much more fun.

I'll add one peculiar anecdote to finish though. I was at a meeting in Heathrow airport in London 2 weeks ago, and afterwards a few of us were having drinks, and I told the assembled company of about 5 people about the book. Sure enough, there was another recipient right there. She hadn't heard of any others, hadn't tried to contact anybody, nothing. Quite a coincidence. Again, we were far from a random sample, as we were both on the exec committee of an EU robotics and cognitive systems project. Not random at all. Bit I thought it was kinda neat all the same.
posted by fcummins at 11:02 AM on December 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A new wave of mailings seems to be underfoot in May 2009.
posted by fcummins at 5:37 AM on May 20, 2009

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