Learning to Abandon Shame in the Age of Typos

[Note: this long post has very little to do with beer. Forgive me.]

As is usual, I flipped through the hard copy of my new book with new eyes Friday evening. Those were the clear eyes of someone who now sees vividly all the typos and mistakes it is now too late to fix. Example: "Their" where it should be "there"; "recently" where it should be "recent"; a sentence garbled by an incomplete rewrite featuring consecutive, dueling verbs ("writes describes"). Uggh.

It got me thinking.

Technology has a way of altering landscapes. Theatrical productions were essentially static until moving pictures. The drama depended on language. Movies introduced the concept of visual storytelling. One of the more interesting technological shifts is the way the Sopranos altered the way television is used to tell stories. Seasons now function like segments in very long movies. The depth and complexity of a show like The Wire exceeds anything that's appeared in movie form.

The internet has changed the landscape of communication, upending the traditional hierarchy. Those who controlled production and distribution once dictated both what content got released and acceptable standards. This changed instantly with the arrival of free services like Blogger and Twitter. I worked in the old age, when journalists were media and everyone else was an amateur. The distinction is lost; with access to distribution, anyone who hangs out a shingle becomes a content-provider. Yet while the nature of content has changed, there's the matter of acceptable standards.

One of my favorite bloggers is Matt Yglesias, who writes about politics at ThinkProgress. Matt's still in his twenties and came of age as a writer in the era of free distribution. He was blogging when he was still in college (and getting national attention). His thinking is complex, quirky, and unexpected, and his prose is often sly and knowing. Example:
If you’re trying to look at America from a balance-sheet perspective the problem is very clear. It’s not “entitlements” and it’s not “Social Security” and it’s not “Medicare” and it’s not “health care costs” it’s the existence of old people. Old people, generally speaking, don’t produce anything of economic value. They sit around, retired, consuming goods and services and produce nothing but the occasional turn at babysitting. The optimal economic growth policy isn’t to slash Social Security or Medicare benefits, it’s to euthanize 70 year-olds and harvest their organs for auction. With that in place, you could cut taxes and massively ramp-up investments in physical infrastructure, early childhood education, and be on easy street.
(Matt's joking; by pointing out the "drain" of the unworking elderly, he illuminates the ways in which government and business differ.)

Even though he's young, Matt's a nationally-recognized author, paid to blog and write books and articles and participate in prestigious think tanks. And his blog is riddled with typos. Much like my own blog and book, he has agreement issues, tense problems, and sentences that were incompletely reworked. Sometimes he just misspells things.

I have always been fascinated by this, because many official organizations have measures to prevent this kind of thing. You certainly wouldn't see that problem on Hendrik Hertzberg's blog at the New Yorker (though Rick has quoted Matt--including in his most recent post). Like John Foyston at the Oregonian, whose posts must travel to New Jersey before publication, there's an invisible layer of editorial oversight happening between the composition of a blog post and the depression of the "publish post" button.

In an earlier era, the presence of typos would be a signifier. It would tell the reader: this is shoddy work you should distrust. Mostly the reader would blame the writer (despite the fact that excising typos takes hours and a separate pair of eyes), but by extension, this tarnishes the reputation of the publication. The New Yorker still prints little end pieces mocking mistakes made in other papers and magazines.

Yglesias, a card-carrying member of the intellectual elite, has been born in a later age. He's used to seeing prose with error and is not distracted by it. There are far more obvious cues about the quality of writing--the depth of thought, the originality, the subtlety of metaphor, the clarity, the wit. If a typo slides by his eye--when a typo slides by his eye--he remains untroubled. His generation is free from a morality that feels shame in the presence of a misplaced apostrophe.

Mine isn't, and I apologize for the typos in the book. (Which, plug plug, you should go buy.) It requires more of a reader to see a writer's intent when the prose is unkempt like mine, but perhaps I can develop some of Matt's sanguinity about the whole thing.