I came across this article on Design Observer by Rick Poynor discussing various adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, and the many interpretations of the author given the rather abstract and (at times) robust descriptions of his world. For example (referenced from the article above):

A Cyclopean maze of squared, curved and angled blocks… an endless labyrinth of colossal, regular and geometrically eurhythmic stone masses which reared their crumbled and pitted crests above a glacial sheet... an edifice composed of geometrical forms for which an Euclid could scarcely find a name.

The wonderful narrative aside, and about the same time I was thinking about downloading a digital copy of the short story to my iPad, I began to wonder about one of the points that Poynor makes in his article. He says that given the age we live in...

People are much more likely now to have experienced an interpretation of the original than they are to have read the actual book.

It was stated with such certainty that it caught me off guard; an absolute truth that we take for granted. And it caused me to wonder about our ability to distinguish between original works and adaptations or remakes, and the value of being able to do so. A number of questions surfaced (for which I admittedly have no answers).

Does there exist a mechanism to trace editions and interpretations of original works such that it would eventually lead you back to the original? Is there any concern for a degradation of the original material due to the continual re-imagining of the story? What is the value of knowing that what you are reading is not the original work?

Obviously, I think most of these concerns apply more to fiction than non-fiction books, but what about music, art, design, software development or really any domain where original works are changed or altered over time. What about books that are turned into movies? Or movies that are turned into books?

And what about now, in the "digital age" of books where I can download copies of literature in seconds from dozens of different locations all with different authors or editors, different publication dates, and different covers? Or institutions like Creative Commons where I can freely download, alter and republish the work of another (assuming they give me the rights to do so)?

I suppose it comes down to one dominant inquiry: Does the lineage of a work (whether book, music, movie, art, etc.) matter? And if it does how are we making sure that this lineage can be traced? The barriers to uncovering this kind of information are only getting higher as the information itself becomes more and more esoteric.

What do you think? Does the lineage of a given work matter? Are there steps that people or organizations are taking to ensure that this lineage exists and is accurate?

It seems a daunting task, and by the time we get through it we may very well be at the mountains of madness.

Image: Shoggot, from Lovecraft´s "At the mountains of Madness", Illustration by Pahko. Via Wikimedia Commons.

AuthorJoshua David