On mistakes in print

The worst mistake of computer science - Lucidchart

You know how it goes: you proof your book, your editor proofs it. Hell, you worked on the content together, sometimes combing down to the level of the word. Then the copy editor gets it. Then the proof reader. You probably had a spouse or friend or two look at it as well. Good to go. Thumbs up all around. Then the book arrives, you flip to a random page (probably to huff the gutter like a line of serotonin-based coke), and there it is. GLARING. A mistake. Then another. And another. I usually find about three per book in total. And I’m only working with a few thousand words in a poetry book. Novelists must find tons. Anyway, I’ve been lucky enough to have a few books go into multiple prints, but most books don’t. So that mistake is there. Your legacy. The scholars of the future, pondering over it. Pouring over your text that’s become central to the foundation of a post-apocalyptic belief system designed to harvest wisdom from the past to protect the future. Except, there’s this major fuck up and society falls apart again. Because of you. (Come on, you know you dream about shit like that, you egotistical bastard. You don’t have to lie to me. You’re among friends here.) Get used to it. No one cares anyway.

Any mistake is humiliating. It seems that it’s always too late to fix them, because we don’t know they exist until they’re in print. For the rest of my life, every time I walk through a used bookstore and see that book, I’ll know that the mistake is still in it. I’ll want someone to buy it, but know that if they do, I will be caught again. The next email is coming. And worse, the next error is probably already lurking somewhere in the manuscript I’m writing now.

The writer isn’t even always the source of the error. One of the most famous mistakes occurs in Melville’s Moby-Dick. A typesetter misread the words “coiled fish of the sea” as “soiled fish of the sea.” Nearly a century later a highly respected critic published an essay pointing out the brilliance of the choice of the word “soiled.” This was actually one of the events that prompted the founding of the Center for Editions of American Authors, an institution which gives a writer reason to hope that if he gets good enough, after he’s dead some professor will fix all of his mistakes in a scholarly edition. The Center adopted methods like reading a text aloud backwards while a listener followed along in a second copy, which seems to have caught mistakes, but must have driven both scholars mad while they did it.

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