To err is human

‘… this one unruly punctuation mark stands as a simple reminder that the book containing it was made by a team of humans, not machines – in a long, complicated and highly skilled process’

wineLast week I settled myself down in the kitchen with a glass of wine and my husband cooking in the background, for a pleasurable session with a recent purchase – a large, expensive book I had coveted for some time but only felt liberated enough to actually buy when someone else was paying.

Although the main focus of this book is the fantastic photographs, each is accompanied by a detailed passage of text, as well as a two-line caption. I wasn’t reading every block of text, but was at least skimming most of them, and over the course of a few evenings I had made it about a third of the way through the book.

apostropheAt that point I found my first mistake: an apostrophe the wrong way round, looking like an opening quote. This was in a caption, and I double-checked the styling – it was part of the name of an iconic pair of jeans – against the body text. Indeed, it was definitely an error.

My overriding feeling, at the time and now a few days later, is that this single tiny flaw makes me love the book all the more, like a boyfriend with some endearing quirk that would infuriate almost anyone else on the planet. In all other ways, every small detail, I find the book so perfect – it’s a beautiful object, designed with care, and it’s clear that every photograph in it has been researched to death, selected with precision, properly credited and proofed obsessively to ensure the most faithful colour reproduction. The text has all the geekish detail on the subject (fashion) that any armchair enthusiast could demand, and has been brilliantly put together and edited, with a consistency of tone despite the fact that it must have been written by multiple contributors.

I know a little about the conditions under which the book would have been made, too, having freelanced for the publisher in the past and worked inside their offices. It is a company I hold in high regard, having witnessed the lengths to which the in-house teams will go to ensure the highest standard possible for all their books. I’ve rarely seen anything like it, and I am fortunate enough to work with some excellent publishers. I could exactly picture many aspects of the gestation of the book, and this made me feel the error all the more deeply.

Of course an apostrophe the wrong way round is really little more than an insider’s joke. No normal reader will notice it. Only the editors or typesetters among the audience will acknowledge it, or care. Only a person obsessed to some unhealthy degree with the publishing process would consider writing several paragraphs inspired by the subject, let alone sharing it with the rest of the world.

Anyway, I woke up in the middle of the night following the discovery worrying about something entirely different. To distract myself I started thinking about the aberrant apostrophe all over again. I pondered on the pain we all go through when we find such a mistake in a book we have shepherded right from manuscript to proof stage, or been more fleetingly involved with. I have shelves full of books I have managed or edited over the years, and I have barely dared to look inside any of them.

I’m not talking about the kind of mistake that means an entire print run gets pulped (that really would keep me awake), or a book riddled with errors throughout, but rather the almost invisible one-off imperfections we try our damndest to avoid, but that almost inevitably survive – the cockroaches of the publishing process – no matter how many pairs of eyes have been on them, making themselves known only after we have a warm copy of the new edition in our trembling hands.

However, I concluded my nocturnal rumination on the apostrophe with the uplifting thought that above all else this one unruly punctuation mark stands as a simple reminder that the book containing it, like all other books, was made by a team of humans, not machines – in a long, complicated and highly skilled process – and for this, as well as all the book’s other achievements, I celebrate it.

Photo on 02-09-2015 at 13.12Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She has never written as much on the subject of a single apostrophe in her life.

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