Monday, January 24, 2011

Today: I come off as a clever-clever superior so-and-so

This is the sentence that jumped out at me:

"Wolper began working on Albertus in 1932 and it swiftly appeared on book jackets, announcing the young Seamus Heaney and William Golding as writers too good to ignore."

There is a problem here. Well, two problems. The use of the adverb 'swiftly' strongly implies that the young Seamus Heaney and William Golding were among the early beneficiaries of the Albertus font, and its use on Faber book jackets. In actual fact, Golding's first published novel was Lord of the Flies in 1954 - 22 years after Albertus was initiated and some 13 years after its adoption in 1941 by Faber, and Heaney wasn't born until 1939 and didn't publish his first collection until 1966 - 34 years after Wolpe's design and 25 years after it was adopted by Faber.

Either the sentence is poorly expressed or the writer is winging the facts and trying to be in command of an area that he knows little about. Switch out the word 'swiftly' for the word 'later' and all is fine.

I'd read about and heard about Simon Garfield's book 'Just My Type'. I remembered Garfield from his excellent book about the rancorous history of Radio 1 (The Nation's Favourite), and thought a book about fonts was potentially interesting.

It turns out that the book is a better idea than it is a book. It has lots of nuggets of history, information and quirky by-ways by the way of font related stuff, but really lacks a narrative of the kind even non-fiction needs. It even looks as if the author has done lots of research up to the point where he had enough material for a book, but really doesn't exude the depth of expertise that we are used to these days in this world of Stephen Pinker, Hawking and writers like Dava Sobel.

Anyway, that's an aside. My real topic is how it only takes one bad sentence. Or one wrong fact, or one moment of sloppiness to undermine the whole of someones work.

I find it hard not to be grumpy and clever-clever superior so-and-so when I see it. The other day I saw a newsreader pronounce the word Berwick (as in the town-on-Tweed) phonetically as Ber-wick. Tonight I saw a scrolling line of news on BBC news 24 reporting that "Senator Gifford's condition downgraded from 'critical' to 'serous'" That's not just a typo but an apostrophe catastrophe, as well as a further typo. What it meant was that the person typing the stuff into the news ticker scrolling software was not aware that Gabrielle Giffords has an 's' on her name all the time. It also meant that nobody checked the typing before it was posted. Even though I was on my own at home I tried hard not to think grumpy superior thoughts.

I make these mistakes myself all the time on my blog and other places. Typos are all over the place if you look. But I am not a professional news ticker typer-inner; neither am I the BBC, or the editor of a widely available and much publicised book (as I write it's #124 on the Amazon chart). In fact I have a kind of typing dyslexia, where my mind sends messages to my fingers that it thinks are perfectly exact, but my fingers automatically reverse certain letter combinations. Sometimes whole strings appear backwards. Curiously I have no such trouble when playing the guitar or piano.

My instant question is: "If he was sloppy on this, then what else?". It could be just a spellchecking error, or he wrote his book using software that automatically switches out words for what it thinks are synonyms. It could be a sentence added in the editing and not properly proofed. Deadlines could have intervened.

It could be any number of things. But what remains is a hazy grasp on the facts, or an inability to write a sentence that expresses exactitude and command of the material. I couldn't help it. This glaringly poor sentence undermined the credibility of the entire book.

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