Wednesday, February 20, 2013
There are certain necessary and recurrent tasks that are so onerous and unpleasant that they can be accomplished only by the application of external physical duress or the nearly supernatural engagement of will power. In general, at least in my life, these have to do with cleaning up messes of one kind or another. I absolutely hate tidying my study, for example. My view is that if a house must look lived in to be livable, a workplace must look worked in to be workable. This theory, which aims to elevate slovenliness to the rank of the virtues, is unfortunately effective only to a limited degree. All too soon the books and papers on the desk become so many and so miscellaneous as to form a kind of haystack in which one’s actual “work” of the moment plays the inglorious role of needle.
Gutter-cleaning is another periodic purgatory. Though nearly a third of our trees have been blown down by the huge winds of recent years, you would think we lived in the heart of a deciduous forest from the state of the drainpipes. Over the years I have bought every patented “gutter-guard” device on the market. They always work perfectly in the ads, but they somehow fail miserably on the actual gutters. The only solution, painful and slow, is a bloguiste on a ladder, moving very slowly around the periphery of the whole house with incrementally scraped knuckles.
Yet gutter-cleaning is less awful than desk-tidying in one important regard. I am not personally responsible for creating the gutter mess. To be forced to face the results of one’s own iniquity always has a special awfulnessness about it. What all this is building up to is this: I have just completed a fortnight of torment reading and correcting the proof sheets of a four hundred page book in the process of publication.
As we look back on printing history we are inclined to regard Gutenberg’s great advances in creating movable type in terms of an increased capacity for production and distribution. It took a long time to copy out a book in handwriting. It took a bit longer to set one up in type, but once that was done you could then print off a hundred of them, or a thousand, in the time it would take to make a second manuscript. But the early printers rarely talked about that huge and obvious advantage. What they tended to brag about was that it was now possible to guarantee the integrity of a text because it had been read and corrected in proof by the author or editor. Every book, in theory, had the authority of a holograph.
But what was a great relief for a publisher might be an equally great anxiety for an author. The “printer’s error” is, after all, a great convenience for a writer, as its invocation might plausibly shield him from the consequences of his own folly. That is why for a long time editors actually made authors sign the corrected sheets. I haven’t experienced that intimidating ritual in a while. That’s probably because most printing these days involves an electronic technology in which a computer file is transformed directly into print. Under these circumstances there are no more “printer’s errors”. There are only author’s or editor’s errors. And the number of them that you can rack up in four hundred pages is pretty discouraging.
There is a technical bibliographic term beloved of graduate students in English: foul papers. The term says it all. Foul papers are the really messed up, crossed out, and scribbled over bundles of verbal protoplasm that were the germs of some of Shaespeare’s plays. Once, in what I must regard as the good old days, I received from a Belgian printing house the proof sheets of a fairly long article in which the word the appeared as thq two hundred and twelve times. Circling every one of those suckers with a red pencil gave me a considerable feeling of accomplishment. There is no such cheap grace in finding twenty-six tabulated pages or errors in a book set directly from the computer disk submitted!
The English word proof has now wandered a fair distance from its original meaning, which still exists is some proverbial expressions often used but seldom understood, such as “The exception proves the rule” or “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” The main challenge of proof-reading, apart from the constant danger of sudden death by terminal boredom, is that the human eye struggles to see not what is there, but what it knows ought to be there. And if in the first place you wrote the text being eyeballed, you are fatally certain of what ought to be there. Your eyes tend to approve some platonic version of what you think you wrote rather than what you actually wrote. That’s why you missed it the first time.
The only thing that allows my blog posts even a spurious façade of typographical accuracy is Joan’s eagle eye. She has just earned yet another oak leaf cluster on her heavily laden marital Croix de Guerre by proofing the equivalent of a hundred and twenty-five blog posts back-to-back. A masochistic friend, Eli Schwartz, likewise read the whole “first-pass” book. The slightly scary thing is that several glaring errors appeared uniquely in each of the three catalogues of error. Eli alone noted a passage in which I have Louis XIV, who died in 1715, presiding over certain events of the 1730s!. But then, in the immortal words of some typographical aphorist of Renaissance, “No book is completed until Error hath crept in and affixed his sly Imprimatur”.