Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ooooops!

Did anyone else happen to read the September 30, New York Times Weekend Arts article about the new exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.? The exhibit is titled Manifold Greatness and its subtitle makes clear what it's about: "The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible."
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It sounds like a wonderful exhibit, especially for those who love words and real books -- manuscripts from the year 1000, the King James Bibles used by Queen Elizabeth I, King James' son, Henry, and Frederick Douglas, among others. And there's the history of how the King James version came to be, and especially the contribultions made by William Tyndale (who was condemned by the church and state for his English translation of the Bible and subsequently strangled to death by the crown, then burned. Talk about a bad review!) But what caught my attention and gave me a chuckle was the work of printerRobert Barker and his associate, Martin Lucas.
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Seems that Barker/Lucas printed a version of the King James Bible in 1613 where in one book he set "Jesus" as "Judas." Oooops, my bad, he probably explained to the authorities. He fixed the error by pasting Jesus' name over that of his betrayer. But the Barker/Lucas masterpiece of mangled setting was their "Wicked Bible" from 1631. In this version they managed to leave out a single word, "not," so that one commandment reads "Thou shalt commit adultery." I thought this sounded very 60s, but clearly it didn't please the authorites back then, since both men were fined for the error. Barker probably wished he'd hired a real proofreader when he was later put into debtors' prison where he subsequently died.
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Reading about Barker/Lucas made me think of errors that have appeared in my books. Usually a new book arrives and I leaf through it quickly, just to get an idea of what readers will experience. Later (a week, two weeks, sometimes longer) I'll go over the book start to finish with a red pen in hand. I read every word, marking sentences/paragraphs I wish I could have done better or that need to be changed in a subsequent printing. I remember being very embarrassed when I discovered that three sentences in a book began with "It was..." Two on the same page! How could I have possibly missed that, I wondered. Actually, I was really furious with myself and set about figuring out how to avoid the same thing ever happening again. Not that I really figured out how to do this. But at least I give myself a lecture about watching for repetitions whenever I'm readying a manuscript to be sent off to one of my editors.
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Then there was the endpaper map for Across America on an Emigrant Train. Oh, my, this one hurt. The map was a last minute addition (the book was actually at the printer when the decision was made to have it drawn), so I didn't get to see it before the book was finsihed. Not that that would have made a difference. When the book arrived I looked at the map, wanting to be sure the artist had gotten Rober Louis Stevenson's 1879 train trip across America correct. Satisfied, I glanced through the book, then put it aside. Several months later, a letter arrived from an alert twelve-year-old reader. "Dear Mr. Murphy. I really liked your book. I liked that Robert Louis Stevenson almost died while trying to get to his girlfriend in California. The only thing I didn't like about the book was that you put the state where I live -- Vermont -- in the wrong place. Thanks for...." But I didn't read his letter all the way through; I was already fumbling for a copy of the book and right away (and way too late) saw that we'd switched both VT and NH.
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Why hadn't I noticed this when I first looked at the book? I was too focused on checking RLT's route and had assumed that the map was correct. At a glance it looked correct (the state's all looked as I remembered them to be). It was a case of familiarity breeding a form of arrogance, or at least a form of laziness. No one could possibly mix up the states or fail to see them mixed up, so there was no need to check each and every one. But obviously, it happened.
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Once my publisher knew about the problem they started the process to correct the error. But it would take months before another printing would be scheduled, and there were already a lot of books out there already. As embarrassed as I was, I decided to fess up immediately whenever I spoke at a school. I would tell kids that there was a mistake in the map, that two states had their positions swapped and challenged them to find them. Which they usually did pretty quickly. Then I would tell them that we all make mistakes and how important it is to check whatever we're working on, be it written or drawn or whatever, very, very carefully. Even if we think we know the material inside-out. So at least I turned a public mistake into a bit of a learning lesson.
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Was the error ever changed. Yes. The only solution was to cut the VT/NH out of the map and stick them in the right state. This left all subsequent versions with those two states' initals gleaming white and very obvious, a little like the Barker/Lucas patch job over Judas.

5 comments:

Steve Sheinkin said...

Jim,
A ten year old kid wrote to me recently to tell me I had misspelled Thaddeus Kosciusko’s name in my book on the Revolution. He was from Poland, and he kindly offered to help me with the spelling of Polish names in future books. It’s embarrassing to make mistakes, but great that readers are paying enough attention to catch them. And, hey, I’m in good company: Washington apparently spelled Kosciusko 11 different ways in his war correspondence.

Jim Murphy said...

Steve -- I love your closing sentence. But it proves the point; eveyone makes mistakes and most of them aren't wildly important (as in life or death). But my mistakes also inspire me (compell me) to do a better job. I once told somon that my goal in writing is to write a perfect book (something along the lines of David Hackett Fisher's Paul Revere's Ride. I'll never do it, but it's worth striving for.

Susan E. Goodman said...

Thank god for copy editors. They have saved face for me a few more times than I care to admit since I pride myself on accuracy. I was once doing a book on space and used a fact given to me by an employee at the US Space & Rocket Center at Huntsville and then had someone else there vet the manuscript. But if weren't for that "save" I would have had NASA inventing the diaper for the Mercury astronauts instead of a woman who did it in the late 40s. And been REALLY embarrassed.

rglaser said...

I think all of us working on nonfiction have experienced similar mistakes--one book my team worked on mixed up the Atlantic and Pacific oceans (ahem, yes, we live in MN), and we once put the state of Mississippi outline on the Alabama book (or vice versa--I can't remember which way we got it wrong). Jim, thanks for sharing that this even happens to the big guys--I couldn't believe it was your name at the bottom of the post. I love the tack you take in school visits of making it a teaching point. Rebecca

Jim Murphy said...

Thank you Susan and Rebecca. One thing that drives me to read and reread text for spelling, fractual errors, etc., etc. is that some reviewers seem to delight in pointing out mistakes, even the most insignificant, taking up valuable space in an already very brief review.