Wednesday, September 22, 2010


"Aghast, and months after the number was printed, I saw that I had called Philip Firmin, Clive Newcome. Now Clive Newcome is the hero of another story by the reader's most obedient writer . . . . But there is that blunder at page 990, line 76, volume 84 of the Cornhill Magazine and it is past mending . . . ." [William Makepeace Thackeray, The Roundabout Papers, "De Finibus"]

Anyone who has ever produced anything, which must be nearly the whole human race, has known the sinking feeling of discovering something that isn't up to standard when it's too late to fix it. Writers and editors cringe at such blunders; so must carpenters, artists, software developers, quilters, sewers of clothing, bakers of cookies, and plastic surgeons.

I once worked for a company that produced maps. Upon discovering an error in a published map, my supervisor muttered about how "we try so hard to get things right -- how did this happen?" and then, in tones of ironic resignation, declared that the person preparing that map had been distracted by the lunch wagon at coffee break time, left his or her post to grab a snack, and upon returning failed to get back into the groove. "Coffee and . . . a cheese Danish, that was it. Cheese Danish." Pinning the error on a hypothetical Cheese Danish seemed to sooth his perturbed spirit.

The publisher of lecture notes for whom I worked in graduate school knew that that in this imperfect world errors could creep into the most meticulously edited publication. Still, he tore his hair (figuratively -- he was nearly as bald as an egg) when a mistake turned up in a set of published notes.

One of my hobbies is interviewing individuals who have done things I think are interesting, and transcribing and editing the material. Four or five of these projects have resulted in rather elaborate booklets that I have copied and given to as many as fifty people. They are seldom reviewed by anyone but me. Going over the same material again and again is tiresome beyond expression. I have to sympathize with Edward Gorey's fictional novelist (Amphigory, "The Unstrung Harp: Mr. Earbrass Writes a Novel"), engaged in "the worst part of all in the undertaking of a novel, i.e., making a clean copy of the final version of the M.S. Not only is it repulsive to the eye and hand, with its tattered edges, stains, rumpled patches, scratchings-out, and scribblings, but its contents are, by this time, boring to the point of madness. A freshly-filled inkwell, new pheasant feather pens, and two reams of the most expensive cream laid paper are negligible inducements for embarking on such a loathsome proceeding."

There comes a point in my projects where I mutter something impolite and decide this will have to do; load myself and my work into the car; and proceed to White Dog Printing. When I distribute the copies I emphasize that if anyone notices a mistake, I don't want to know about it. I'm not alone: Edward Gorey, quoted above, once told an interviewer: "I refuse to read anything I've done."