Deborah Talmi is a psychologist in the Emotional Cognition Laboratory at the University of Manchester. She received a mysterious book from an unknown sender several years ago and went to investigate…
In July 2008 I received, to my office address, a book, sent anonymously from Sweden. Hand-written on the envelope was a message: ‘I’ll speak to you about this when I’m back in September’. The book was ‘Being or Nothingness’, by ‘Joe K.’. It is a short hard-cover book, in which the publisher info page was physically cut out. The book discusses, in a self-referential, disjointed, and poetic way, the meaning of life, consciousness, self-identity, religion, from what seems to be an existential perspective. It is quite a bizarre text, with subtitles like: “in the day after I stopped writing this book…” There was a typed letter tucked in the book addressed to Prof.Hofstadter, who is famous for his work on the mysteries of consciousness. Escher’s famous picture “Drawing hands”, which features prominently in Hofstadter’s recent book “Strange Loop” was printed on the front cover. And there were a couple of words physically cut out from the text. The book claims to be a translation from Swedish, of an English original that was lost.
September came and went but I received no further communications. I then happened to mention it to my mentor, a person well-known for his work on consciousness, who said he got the same book (his PA threw out the envelope). So I spent some time on the internet, where, when I got the book initially, there were only 3 google hits, one of them the book’s ISBN number. It turned out that a number of scientists around the world, in disciplines from astrophysics to religion studies, have received the book in a similar fashion (http://muriloq.com/blog/2008/09/being-or-nothingness-marketing-viral-bizarro/ and http://ask.metafilter.com/106639/Is-this-viral-I-received-a-strange-book).
They have been wondering “why me?” because some have never published anything related to the topics the book discusses; others have never published in English. Some hypothesized it’s a Christian conversion mission – although the book’s content is not explicitly religious. In fact it’s hard to say what its message is. But one of the bloggers noted that if you put the letter to Hofstadter behind the page with the cut-out words you see the words “faith and choice”. And one of the bloggers then posted a link to a video animation supposedly created by an American student in Hofstadter’s university, about how he found copies of the book under a bridge. Yeah right. But that student, Levi Shands, looked the part on Facebook, with more than 300 friends. Who would go through that effort, and why?
This clearly required some investigative skills. I sent Jon Ronsonan emailand happily he took me on. We met at the café behind where I was working at UCL. He reminded me of Woody Allen. It was just before his film appeared (www.imdb.com/title/tt1234548/) but he tracked down the translator of this book, who he believed was the author. This interesting chain of events is described succinctly here (http://lukemuehlhauser.com/the-riddle-of-being-or-nothingness/). Jon found it amusing that a bunch of rational scientists believed that thinking hard will uncover the Truth behind the actions of a man who – he believed -- was a little bit off his hinges. This was a good analogy for the topic he was working on at that time – what makes psychopaths ‘tick’. And this is how my story got to feature in the international bestseller “The Psychopath Test”. You can read the first chapter here.
Some years later, in April 2013, I received the ‘collector copy’ – a hardback in a box, with a fancy red seal - and a book with the pictures and bios of the first 700 recipients. I have the mystery author to thank for including my name in the same breath as that of Nelson Mandela and Salman Rushdie – the list reads like who’s who of the times (as you can imagine my name appears towards the very end!). This, so far, had some internal logic of its own. But it didn’t quite prepare me to the associated merchandize that I received soon after that: postcards and pins, and a reference to a website selling the books and these oddities.
There was also a countdown – to what, I knew not – but an astrophysics friend figured it was noon on winter solstice 2021, Swedish time. The merchandise looked professional but the artwork was very different in style to the one in the book. I couldn’t imagine the psychologist in Sweden is responsible for all of this. I looked it up again: there were more blogs and that “American student” told all but there was nothing on the new stuff. So I emailed Jon again. He tweeted this. The site disappeared!
More investigations followed. Through some internet magic people found out who owned the site – an American artist, again with art completely different to both styles of the book and the merchandise. Another journalist, a friend from back home, wrote about this story for her paper and contacted Ronson, Shand, and the Swedish guy.
In the summer of 2014 a Swedish journalist had more extensive communication with Per Norfeld, the “translator”. Per regrets that people navel-gaze instead of focusing on the book’s message. The trouble is that the message is not a straightforward one. If you press ‘Embark’ on the odd Beacon website (which no longer sells merchandize) you can try to figure it out yourself.
When I came back to the office after the Christmas break, I found this postcard in my pigeon hole. It was in an envelope, as usual, with no name of the sender. I leave you to draw the conclusions. Or we could wait until solstice 2021.