Sunday, March 05, 2006

Attention to detail is paramont

Proofreading is a futile task. One either has so many things to correct that it becomes inevitable that something will slip through, or, if there are few mistakes, one's concentration is challenged so that it's easy to allow the most glaring of errors to go into print. At least, that's the fear. But how can one know for sure without reading everything again and again?

Perhaps my experience of proofreading is why I have an extra sensitivity to mistakes in books. Recently, I've read a novel in which the word 'buses' is spelt more than once with three Ss and 'practise' is used as a noun on a regular basis. And in another book, I was perturbed by the use of 'disinterest'. Surely, I was thinking, the author meant 'uninterest'?

Things that stand out in memory include Peter Handke's essay on a successful day. He refers to 'Coney Island' in Van Morrison's song of the same name as 'a small American town' despite the song's copious use of placenames from the north of Ireland.

And then there's Alain Finkielkraut's The Wisdom of Love. This popular (and, I have to say, rather embarrassing) explication of Levinasian philosophy uses Henry James' great story The Beast in the Jungle as an example of inattentiveness to the Other. In this case it happens to be a woman, May Bartram. Finkielkraut calls her Mary Bertram. So much for his attentiveness.

Yet why should it matter? I've often wondered why it should be so painful to see typos and errors in books. Really, it's easy to see what the intention was whether the error is spelling, grammatical or factual. One needn't be held up. Yet sometimes, it's seems a tear in fabric of the universe has opened up.


  1. It is a blessedly cynical endeavor, proofreading. One gets paid to read with more care and patience than the author hirself, or publisher, has ever bothered. Or a different sort of care, perhaps.

    Reading slowly is indeed such a rarity these days, the proofreader often feels himself neglected, and alone, a poet forced to weigh the currency of language, there where others are content to let spare change fall upon the sidewalk.

    The proofreader is seen by the editor, and the author, as a beggar; his services are a necessary nuissance. He merely washes the windshield before the light has changed. In this manner the proofreader is deeply misunderstood.

    (The proofreader aspires, one day to translate, or to write. But for now he is content to practice.)

    He begins to foster and nurse a sense of bitterness and superiority, certainly, and not entirely undeserved.

    Other times, what may appear at first glance to be mistakes are quite deliberate. In this instance, the self-seriousness of the proofreader has been pricked.

  2. Tsk, nuisance has one S! :)

  3. damn.

    the proofreader/nuisance is just as often an horendous speler.

  4. Anonymous4:32 pm

    Errors are as appalling for the author as for the proof reader. I have noticed the errors in my recent book, and they so appall me that I can't even think of opening the book again. Lars Iyer is very good about this. Sometimes errors are added by poor copy editing, which is a strange experience, or the editor fogetting to correct the mistakes in the manuscript that the author has pointed out.



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