Benjamin Dreyer: My Life in Error: A Copy Editor Recounts His Obsession With Perfection

From a New York Times guest column by Benjamin Dreyer headlined “My Life in Error: A Copy Editor Recounts His Obsession With Perfection”:

When I was a very young person, one of the jewels of my burgeoning personal library was a book about American Indians (as they would have been called back then). It was oversize, and heavily illustrated, with one of those shiny plastic cases that have a pebbled texture — the better to wipe down the book if you spilled something on it, I guess. I read and reread it, as I liked to do then with my favorite books, and still like to do now.

I recall stories about totem poles, of course, and potlatches, and accounts of the Onondaga and the Seminole, and a picture of a massive cliff hollow in which what looked like a low-rise apartment building had been constructed. Who wouldn’t want to live in something like that?

But mostly I remember a picture of a Navajo woman, perhaps with an infant playing in the nearby grass, weaving a rug on a loom, and the assertion that Navajo rug weavers always made one intentional error in every rug they wove, lest, having created something perfect, their purpose on earth would be fulfilled and they would be immediately translated to the afterlife. (Well, that’s how I remember it, and I suppose my memory of it is as important as — if not more important than — what the book actually said.)

Years later I would learn that this notion of the intentional craft error exists in cultures around the world, and I’ve also grasped the lovely, complex ways superstition, hubris, humility and respect for the gods may all intersect. But back then my main takeaway, as a mundanely literal-minded child, was that, except for a willing act of self-sabotage, perfection was an achievable state. (Moreover, if you intentionally weave a flaw into a rug, haven’t you achieved your intended imperfection perfectly?)

The book from my childhood eventually went away somewhere, but my quest for perfection persisted. Could anything be more satisfying than straight A’s? Could anything be more infuriating than the barely joking paternal response “What happened to the other two points?” when I managed a 98 on a test?

A couple of decades would pass before I found a proper outlet for my obsession and wandered into a career as a book proofreader. The means of entry was, in fact, an error: A writer friend shared with me the bound galley of his latest book-to-be, and I pointed out to him that his passing reference to barbecued chicken ribs at a picnic was surely meant to be barbecued chicken wings. Not (entirely) displeased with my catch, he introduced me to his production editor — the person in a publishing house in charge of hiring copy editors and proofreaders and navigating an ostensibly finished book toward its intended finish line of perfection. Off I went, calling out for a living missing or inadvertently duplicated words, and tidying up punctuation. Eventually, I graduated from proofreading to copy-editing, diving deeper into the process of making a book the best possible version of itself.

Perfection, I’ve found, is an often elusive but not unattainable goal, and any number of the books I’ve worked on over the past three decades have made it to print without a single discernible error.

And yet. In my early days, I would sulk in my office with the door closed if I found out that one of my books included a typo. A sentence referring to “geneology” once sent me into a blue funk for hours. As time passed I took these errata slightly less personally, but the sting lingered, if not for so long as it had at the start.

For me, there is a real thrill in the great scavenger hunt of rooting out errors, whether it’s a simple “lead” where “led” is meant (that messed-up verb is, I’d say, the commonest typo to get into print) or something grander.

Proofreading a new edition of a 50-year-old translation of a French classic, I was stopped in my tracks by a section of a half-dozen or so unattributed lines of dialogue in which one line seemed to be missing. He said, I pointed with my finger, she said, he said, she said … she said again? (It’s an indication of my stubborn faith in the printed word that I had to run my finger down that passage several times before I was sure that the error was on the page and not in my head.)

As it happened, the novel’s translator was still alive, and he was (I was told) delighted to fill in the missing line, which had apparently gone unnoticed all this time.

A more elaborate version of this story occurred a number of years later, when a puzzled email from a reader about what appeared to be a continuity glitch in a major work of 20th-century science fiction inspired me to do a bit of detective work. Assisted by a book pirate’s online post of the entire text, I uncovered eight paragraphs that had somehow gone missing decades before.

How can this happen? you might be wondering. I can’t be certain, but I infer that in the translation of the book from its original hardcover version to a mass-market paperback, an overburdened editorial assistant, tasked with photocopying the original, skipped a spread — two consecutive pages, a left and a right, that is. Or perhaps that assistant dropped the spread on the floor, and because the missing text, improbably and unluckily, began at the beginning of a sentence and concluded at the end of one, the gap went unremarked. (To be fair, this particular book drones on so uneventfully for pages and pages that one could be forgiven for not noticing that some of the drone was absent.) Of course, we fixed the error.

I’m occasionally asked whether I can make my way through the world without shivering under the constant bombardment of typos. When I’m not on the clock, the answer is: mostly. A restaurant sign advertising a “pre-fix” menu will stop me in my tracks (I won’t eat there). And once, watching the movie “My Week With Marilyn,” I elbowed my husband sharply in the ribs over a prescription bottle, visible on a night table for approximately a second and a half, whose label read “Tunial” instead of “Tuinal.”

“I think it must hurt sometimes to live in your brain,” my husband has said on occasion, not unkindly. But, as he also notes, in a kind of nursery rhyme mantra, “Your strengths are your weaknesses, your weaknesses are your strengths.”

As much as I can revel in the intentional glitch in a Navajo rug — that perfect imperfection — I still aim for unadulterated perfection, at least as far as books are concerned. Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t.

Once, years ago, I asked my mother how she managed to keep our home so spotlessly clean, mostly on her own.

“I know where the dirt is,” she replied.

Same for me.

Benjamin Dreyer, the author of “Dreyer’s English,” is the copy chief of Random House. He has copy-edited books by E.L. Doctorow, Frank Rich and Elizabeth Strout, among others, as well as “Let Me Tell You,” a volume of previously uncollected work by Shirley Jackson.

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