Why Cry Over Split Milk?
May 10, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 32 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
I was reading along in an article in the New York Times Magazine about a woman who reacted to being fired from a rather cushy job by working out her depression through overeating, when I came upon the following sentence: “I put the plate of peanut better, a half bottle of wine, a glass and a linen napkin on a tray and climbed back to my bedroom.” Ah, thought I, “peanut better, what can be butter?”
Why do people take such pleasure in discovering typographical errors—typos, in the trade term—especially in putatively august publications? I confess I do. Is there a touch of Schadenfreude in it? Not so much “see how the mighty have fallen” as “see how sloppy, sadly incompetent, bereft of standards they have become.” Catching a typo heightens the reading experience, making a reader feel he is perhaps just a touch superior to the author, his or her editors, and, it does not go too far to say, the culture of our day.
My own pleasure in discovering typos is, alas, less than complete because of the typos readers have found—and too often reported to me—in my own published scribblings. I am less than a demon proofreader, especially of my own writing. I have published books with smaller publishing companies in which I found it necessary to hire a professional proofreader to go over my galley or page proofs. This, though, didn’t ensure the books in question were typo-free. Few things are more demoralizing than a letter from a reader, even a friendly reader, who, after praising you, notes: “By the way, on page 273, where I think you meant the word content the word context appears. I mention this, not in a spirit of gotcha, but so that you can correct it for the second edition of your fine book.”
Ah, yes, the second edition. “The rare editions of my books,” wrote Reggie Turner (friend of Max Beerbohm and Oscar Wilde), “are the second editions.” The dark little joke here is of course that not infrequently there is no second edition, and so one’s books remain in the world permanently marred by typos.
I used to receive letters from a dermatologist in Ohio who in his first two paragraphs would praise my books extravagantly, and then in his final paragraph would point out a number of orthographical and grammatical errors. (Often they weren’t errors at all, but let that pass.) When one of his letters arrived, I would open it with the trembling hands of a man opening a longhand-addressed letter from the IRS. Finally, I wrote to tell him that I would prefer to receive no more of his letters. A nice man, he answered by saying that he understood, but on this matter of corrections, he just couldn’t help himself.
Such typos in my own writing as have been called to my attention have thus far been neither comical nor decisive in blocking my meaning. And for that I am grateful. I once heard a story—apocryphal or not, I do not know—that the poet and critic Delmore Schwartz wrote an elaborate interpretation of a T. S. Eliot poem based on a typo in the poem. A writer I know once sent me an email in which he recounted answering an annoying copy editor who queried the meaning of the word chapeau by drawing a line out into the margin of his proof and, in parentheses, noting, “(It’s a hat stupid),” only to find his correction appear in the finished text of his book: “ . . . chapeau (it’s a hat stupid).”
There’s no precise way of knowing, of course, but it often seems there are more typos today than ever before. Books published several decades ago had a feeling of solidity, of permanence about them that didn’t allow for typos and other editorial slovenliness. I read somewhere that there has never been a typo in the National Geographic; it would be nice to think that this is true. I have discovered typos in the New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement, and every other magazine I read.
My own guess is that writing with computers and computer printing—spellcheck devices notwithstanding—have added to the GNT, or gross national typos. I would add to this the disappearance of the kind of steadfast person who copyedited and proofread professionally, and who took a justified pride in her (often women occupied such jobs) work, and didn’t keep a screenplay she was working on in the lower left drawer of her desk.
The secret of excellent proofreading is caring intensely about getting things right and loathing error with an intensity that perhaps only fascism or an alimony-collecting ex-wife deserves. Such people appear to have departed the earth, and don’t figure soon to return. Might as well relax, sit back, and enjoy the typos one finds while having a peanut better and jolly sandwick and a cold glass of mulk.