I love a book that gets out into the world with something wrong. How much more interesting is the Library of America volume which claims on the title page to be by Herman Meville? More run of the mill are the two books I’m correcting at work just now because we printed them without indexes. Or the recent edition of Aristophanes: Peace which we were printing with a duplicate of page 135 in place of page 125: When I supplied a corrected book to the professor at Vassar, he emailed his class with the missing page 125, under the heading “May the whole Peace now be with you”. When I was a teenager I read a Penguin biography which (I now realize) lacked the final signature. I puzzled over why a biography of Charles Dickens would leave him alive, if ailing, but never thought that there might be a section missing, and that I should have returned it to the publisher for replacement. (Well, maybe I wasn’t that naïve; perhaps I just couldn’t be bothered to find out about the last few hours.) I have retained a copy of a book about massage from a previous job, in which one illustration contains, in place of a finger, a Photoshopped penis. It took quite a while for anyone to notice this and complain to us. I also have one of the few surviving copies of a linguistics book which as editor I approved with a laugh and a shrug when the subeditor queried the use of first names only of members of the Kennedy White House in slightly suggestive examples of linguistic usages. The entire stock had to be pulped when the US office determined the book to be libelous. A lesson there about the difference between the legal systems on either side of the ocean — or is it, as I still suspect, a lesson about marketing department pusillanimity?
I just read Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller, the whole premiss of which is the quest for a complete copy of a novel, this novel, which the main character, the Reader, starts reading in chapter one, but discovers to be a miscollated copy which contains only the first signature of the book, duplicated throughout. When he goes to the bookseller he’s told that the publisher has announced the problem had affected the entire run, and that the sig he’d been reading is actually the start of a completely different book by a Polish author. He opts for a copy of the Polish novel, as he’d become hooked on that first sig. A replacement copy contains, however, entirely different content from what he’d been reading before. He gets fascinated by this new book though, but comes to a point where the pages start to be blank. He realizes anyway that it probably isn’t the Polish novel anyway, as the names don’t sound Polish. So it goes on in a quest to find the complete text of something, always frustrated by yet another publishing defect.
I liked it immensely, but then I would wouldn’t I? All these manufacturing errors, missing manuscript pages, inaccurate translations etc. are right up my alley. Some critics talk about it as being too slick, too easy, to contrived. I really don’t like critics who always feel they have to find some fault in a book. I have friends who love, and are extremely knowledgeable about, musical theater. Every show they go to seems to turn out to be lousy because it doesn’t match up to this or that platonic ideal. Same with many opera goers. Just because the soprano didn’t do it as well as Callas really doesn’t matter to me: she did it well enough to make for an enjoyable evening. I really cannot expect to be present at the best performance ever of any show you care to name, and to allow that disappointment to ruin it for me is a good way of wasting the price of the ticket. I think this all comes from the same impulse that requires an editor to find mistakes in any proof you show them. If they can’t find an error, that shows that they haven’t been looking closely enough. Finding the error shows they are expert at their job, just as finding the inadequacies in the opera production shows that you know a lot about opera.