© 2006 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved.
A quick but instructive story about accuracy in print.
I like to think that I read, and write, with unusual care and attention—especially when I’m trying. I was a newspaper editor when I was 24. I’ve written 33 books, and read an average of a book a day for over fifty years.
I wrote the novel CALLAHAN’S LEGACY in 1995. I had probably read it fifty times, over a period of a year, by the time I typed the last page. Then I read it straight through from the top with great care, and sent the “final draft” off to my editor. He sent back suggested corrections, which forced me to re-read long sections again, with great care. Eventually we agreed on a “final final draft,” and he had a cheque cut and mailed to me.
In the fullness of time, I got back a copy-edited manuscript, full of both arcane markings instructing the printer to do what it said right there on the page, and an erudite and meticulous stranger’s suggested corrections for me to accept or reject. As a general rule, anywhere from 40-75% of these corrections are pedantic, obtuse, mistaken, or otherwise infuriating……but there will always and every time be a solid 10-25% in which that blessed annoying stranger has saved your ass, kept you from looking like a major jackass. I don’t recall the specific percentages from CALLAHAN’S LEGACY, nor do I recall that copy-editor’s name anymore. The point is: I read that particular version of my book not as a story, but as a nitpicker disinterested in the story, looking only at nuts and bolts, punctuation marks, fine points of grammar, arguable spellings, questionable assumptions.
A few months later they sent me unbound galleys, full of a typesetter’s misunderstandings of what the copy-editor and I had asked for, plus his own typos. Again, I read it more as strings of text than as fiction, hunting errors. So did a proof-reader.
Next month came the bound galleys. More error-stalking, extremely meticulous and intense because it’s the Last Chance.
Finally, advance copies of the April 1996 hardcover edition arrived. For the first time since I’d sent the “final draft” off to my editor, I read my book from start to finish as a story, trying to maintain what my Zen-monk wife calls “beginner’s mind,” to see it as I imagined a stranger would. Happily, I liked it fine.
Even more happily, a lot of reviewers and critics read it, and they liked it fine, too. A lot of people bought it, and hopeably either read it, or donated it to a prison library. I had to read portions of it aloud at conventions, and on radio, to promote its sale, so it stayed in front of my face for months.
By which time I had to read and approve the galleys for the 1997 paperback edition. A whole lot more people bought or shoplifted that avatar, and at least some of them must have read it. I did get lots of mail on it, virtually all favorable. I read from it in public for more months. Time passed; it finally began to fade from memory.
Then last year Blackstone Audiobooks hired me to read the entire novel aloud for them, complete and unabridged. My studio engineer Rob Bailey followed along word by word as I read, and our work was backstopped by Blackstone’s production staff.
Now, whatever flaws CALLAHAN’S LEGACY may have, wouldn’t you agree with me that by the time I had finished the sessions at Rob’s Treehouse Studio here on Bowen Island, the book’s text at least was pretty certain to be 100% accurate? That by now, even if inconceivably I had failed to spot some gross error after dozens of careful readings, even if the editor, copy-editors, typesetters and proof-readers had all also failed in their jobs, surely to God one of the hundreds of thousands of people who bought or borrowed or boosted a copy during the ten years it’s been in print would have been bound to notice, and to send a letter to either me or my publishers?
Every chapter title in CALLAHAN’S LEGACY is a palindrome. That is, it reads the same forwards and backwards. I will limit myself for the moment to a single example, which I stole outright from the great Stephen Fry: chapter 8 is titled, “Rettebs, I flahd noces, eh? Ttu, but the second half is better.” The other 11 chapter titles are nearly as goofy, and they’re all palindromes.
This week I received a copy of Blackstone Audiobook’s newly released version of CALLAHAN’S LEGACY by Spider Robinson, read by Spider Robinson, in mp3 format.
(If you’re not hip to mp3 yet, get there. Audiobooks were always too awkward and pricey for me when they involved lugging around a box set of CDs or a suitcase of cassettes. But in mp3, you can fit a very large novel on a single disc! Most DVD players will play mp3 discs, most new car CD players will, all computers will, and they’re easy to load into an iPod.)
So there I was, importing the disc into my Powerbook’s iTunes, listening to myself read aloud, appreciating how magnificent Rob's magic mike makes my voice sound, admiring the wacky cover art Blackstone came up with, puzzling out the inside table of contents. An mp3 disc needs to have a new track at least every ten minutes, so each chapter’s beginning is located not by a page number, but by its track number. I glanced down that list of 12 palindromic chapter titles—
--and knew, the instant my eye fell on it—this time, God damn it—that the title of Chapter 12 was not a palindrome.
Check it yourself, if you have a copy. In all existing editions, including my original Microsoft Word for Macintosh v.5.1a document, it reads:
Are We Not Drawn Forward To A New Era?
That is not a palindrome. If you type that backwards, you get:
Are We Naot Drawr of nward To A New Era?
suggesting that in this new era we will all be mumbling drunk. Now, had I typed:
Are We Not Drawn Inward To New Era?
that would have been a furshlugginer palindrome. But I didn’t. I typed it wrong. And read it wrong, over and over and over and over.
And so did everyone else, including several eagle-eyed professionals. For ten years.
How I could have gotten it so wrong in the first place, I cannot imagine. How we all could have missed the mistake for so long, I’m not sure I can even imagine imagining. To err is human—but geeze.
Why did I see the mistake at a glance this time? I haven’t got a bloody clue.
Jeanne is always advising me to learn to come to terms with Imperfection. I think from now on, when I encounter typos or even, as in this case, outright blunders in the works of other writers, I’m going to work hard on being a lot more compassionate and understanding.
Meanwhile, feel free to hand correct the title of Chapter 12 in your copy of CALLAHAN’S LEGACY—or if we’re ever at the same convention or signing I’ll be happy to do it for you.
Or, I suppose, we could all just lighten up, and learn to live with Impefrection.