Every Living Thing–The Life & Times of a Glasgow Vet Student has a cute anecdote regarding the value of careful proofreading and how small mistakes can be inconvenient and costly at the customs line. Who thinks to proofread a passport or visa? Well…
Proofreading is how I began my so-called career many years ago, and the habits I learned follow or perhaps plague me still. For example, I’m currently reading Hilary Mantel’s 1992 novel A Place of Greater Safety and finding the text riddled with typos. The most common error is a missed quotation mark–not surprising because Mantel takes a unique approach to setting up dialogue. But it’s dismaying to find that a major publisher allowed so many mistakes to slip through, and it interrupts my reading pleasure.
Years ago, I saw Edna O’Brien reading at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. She read from one of her short story collections, and at one point she paused, adjusted her reading glasses, and stated: “Typographical error, Farrar, Straus, Giroux.” Called out on the podium, publishers!
Online sites host the largest number of typos and outright grammatical or mechanical mistakes, but paper texts aren’t as reliably correct as they once were. The New York Times has become quite lax lately; three months ago, I even found a typo in The New Yorker!
I understand why there are so many more typos these days–there are so many fewer proofreaders. It gets expensive, hiring all those human beings to inspect the small details of every text, and publishers are not making as much money as they once did. How many picky readers like me exist? Probably not enough of us that we could stage a book-buying boycott demanding that Random House hire more proofreaders (people like me could never really stage such a boycott–we’re too addicted to books).
Computers, however, are not yet intelligent enough to catch the shimmery, shifting nuances of the English language and its attendant finery in the shape of punctuation and capitalization, footnoting and italicization. So there will be mistakes, and I guess I can live with that. “To err is human,” and all that. And Mantel is a fine writer.