In around 1945, J.D. Salinger completed work on “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls”, and it was set to be published in Harper’s Bazaar. However, Salinger withdrew it from the magazine, and it sat unpublished for decades. The only known copy in the world was held at Princeton University’s library. Kristopher Jansma described his experience reading the unpublished manuscript:
The Princeton librarian had my photograph taken for an ID badge and I signed a form promising not to damage the rarities. I was instructed to lock up my bag and wash my hands. Off-handedly, the librarian added, “You can bring your laptop in if you want.” I could hardly believe my ears but I did not stop to ask questions.
Inside, I was given a sharpened pencil and three sheets of bright orange paper. Another librarian pulled Box 14 out of a cabinet. Inside was Folder 26. All that distinguished Salinger’s folder from the others was a red label along the edge, reading: NO PHOTOCOPYING.
In accordance with copyright law, the earliest “Ocean” could be published would be 50 years after Salinger’s death — that is, January 27, 2060. It was assumed that a copy would not surface until then.
That didn’t stop enterprising users at a private torrent tracker to request its leaking, though. Four years ago, a user requested it; since then, it racked up six terabytes of bounty, to be awarded to the first person to upload it.
Then, today, it happened: “Ocean” and two other unpublished Salinger stories were leaked. It became apparent that the leak didn’t actually occur today, but in 1999, with the (probably illegal) publication of “Three Stories” in a run of 25 copies. One surfaced on eBay, and it was purchased for about £60.
Summer Anne Burton, for Buzzfeed:
Reading the stories is an odd experience — “The Ocean Full Of Bowling Balls” in particular is magical and sweet and sad, as is all of Salinger, and it’s a delight to finally be able to read it and impossible to understand why he would secret it away. But the other two stories are very rough, at best, and it’s hard not to feel a bit guilty when devouring something that he didn’t want the world to see, and it’s harder still to imagine a less Salinger-esque way to read these stories than hastily scanned and illegally hosted online.
The ethics of this are interesting. In favour of the leak is the fact that Salinger is dead, and that these stories would not be available for legal publishing before 2060, for arbitrary reasons which are perhaps not in the interests of those most likely to read them. Against the leak is that it’s perhaps against the wishes of Salinger — he clearly didn’t want them published before.
There is something more powerful at work here, though. Rare items — such as these stories, or the Robert Ludwig-mastered version of “Led Zeppelin II” — are pricey collectables. The internet has allowed for a small amount of equalization for those of us who cannot afford to spend hundreds (perhaps thousands) of dollars on rare books and records. These leaks enable us to experience these rare examples without necessarily diminishing the collectable value of the physical items. Surely, that’s a net positive result.