Saturday, May 31, 2014

Pedantry is hardly a secret vice

     Most people who offer corrections are themselves wrong.
     I should probably say "many" instead of "most"—I'm not keeping count. I didn't do a survey. It just feels like "most."
     I will say, from long experience, that the more arrogance a person displays when offering up his supposed correction, the greater the odds that the corrector is the one who is mistaken.
    For instance.
    End of a long week. Wrote two columns -- Monday's, on Harry Caray's hidden diaries, and a Voices blog post on the anniverary of Bobby Cann, a cyclist killed by a car. Rode the Divvy to Clybourn to look at the spot. Didn't have to, but I wanted to take a picture of the Ghost Bike, and lay eyes on the scene, again.
     Three, now that I think of it, if you count this one.
     Not to mention hearing, still, from those unhappy about Wednesday's Hot Doug's column. 
     So it's 4 p.m., tidying up. Check the mail. Oh look, a letter. 
     Minimal return address: "MBG—Chicago, IL 60610.
     Inside, two photocopied pages, from my latest book, You Were Never in Chicago.
     Underlined in blue pen—very straight, must have used a ruler—is this passage, about the Medill School of Journalism:
      Misspelling a name in an assignment drew an automatic F, no matter how good the rest of the article might be...One error is too many.
     In the margin, handwriting:
     Fact checking should also mean an automatic F. See the following page. Your researchers should have been more careful/thorough.
     My researchers? Ah, hahaha....
     It is signed: "Sincerely—A degreed librarian and former Chicago History Museum employee."
     On the next page, I quote Hemingway writing about Chicago in a letter "while living at 1230 N. State." Which our nameless librarian has also underlined. In the margin he, or I suppose, possibly, she, writes: "1239 North Dearborn-- the building has a plaque."
     Oh ho, the building has a plaque. Well, that settles it, doesn't it? A plaque; can't argue with a plaque.
     This is an example of what I call the "Two Definitions Problem." Words often have more than one meaning. If I say I caught three carp and put them in my creel, and you write in that I am an obvious illiterate, because a "carp" is a complaint" and a "creel" is a rack for holding bobbins in sewing, it is you, and not I, who are making a mistake, because "carp" and "creel" have two definitions. The former can be a fish as well as a gripe and the latter, according to my New Oxford American Dictionary, is either: 1) "a large wicker basket for carrying fish" and 2) a rack holding bobbins or spools for spinning."
    Why is this common? People are familiar with one definition, they generally hold other people in contempt, and it never occurs to them that the second definition might be lurking there. They never imagine a person might be thinking differently than themselves.
    Hemingway did indeed live at 1239 N. Dearborn, just as the plaque says. He lived there in the fall of 1921, after marrying Hadley Richardson and returning from their honeymoon.
    Before that, in 1920, Hemingway lived on the third floor of 1230 N. State, with a friend. There is no plaque because the address was absorbed into an apartment building. Hemingway lived in two different places in Chicago—mind-blowing, I know. Actually, that isn't true either; he also lived at 63 E. Division, and might have lived elsewhere, but I'll draw the veil here.
    You get my point.
    Since there is no return address, I can't hope to inform MBG directly. Though if you work at the Chicago History Museum, and know of a former employee, a degreed librarian — my guess you'll recognize who it is instantly, because a person like that, well, pedantry is hardly a secret vice, is it? -- of those initials, you might want to pass this along, with a sorrowful note that he might want to spend his retirement doing other things than sending starchy anonymous notes to writers who have not committed an error.
    No reader has found a factual error in You Were Never in Chicago. I worked very hard, along with University of Chicago Press manuscript editor Carol Saller and the great Bill Savage, the book's editor, to try to make that happen. I'm proud of that. The closest anyone came to finding a blunder is that I use "el" instead of "L" — the CTA's term. But that wasn't a mistake, it was a choice. I find "L' inelegant, and figured, if "el" is good enough for Nelson Algren, it's good enough for me.
     Which does not mean the book is without error. Chew on that dilemma a moment. No reader pointed out an error, but an error is there. The answer is, there is an error, but one that I found myself. Because I care about these things. Don't know how it happened, but it's there. embarrassing enough that I'm keeping it to myself. I'll fix it in the 5th edition, if there is one. That's a great advantage of the on-line world. You can fix typos and mistakes. And why false accusations like this burn, because they assume a carelessness about the one thing I'm most careful about. I can tell you every typo in every book that I've ever written. I used "coronet" when I meant "cornet" in 1994 in Complete and Utter Failure. And that was fixed before the book went to press. Still, it almost got in.
    So the issue isn't reprimanding MBG, per se. Given the limited audience of this blog, I can't expect it will get back to him. Or her. But even airing the matter is a form of satisfaction, though I like to think, if it were only semi-settling a score with a faceless critic, I wouldn't do it. There is a message here. We are hot to find fault in others. I know I am. It's good to try to hold the dogs back, to survey the landscape before letting go the leash of correction. When somebody takes issue with what I wrote, they almost never consider that I wrote what I did deliberately, that I knew I'd get grief but wrote it anyway, and accept the grief as the price you pay for saying something worthwhile. I take strong positions, but do so with humility, or try to. Humility, the ability to question yourself, is important, because to write is to err. But if you are going to be so bold as to try to point out errors in others, try to do so politely, since you might be the one in the wrong, if not now, then eventually. You might be just as wrong as MBG was; utterly wrong, suffering from the myopia and laziness he falsely finds in others, and smug about it too, which makes it that much worse. I can't hope he -- or she -- will know of this tendency. But I'll bet MGB's friends are already painfully aware of it.


  1. My wife and I had our wedding rehearsal dinner at a charming restaurant in Oak Park called Hemmingway's Bistro. Which used to be called Hemingway's Bistro. At least until Papa's heirs caught wind of it and took offense at some restauranteur trading off on their forebear's fame. Cue the lawyers. One hopes a persnickety librarian doesn't veer off the road while driving by upon catching the "misspelled" awning out of the corner of his or her eye. All of which begs the question, what name?

  2. I visited Hemingway's house in Cuba many years ago and he wrote standing up with a typewriter perched onto of a dresser at shoulder height. He also had a rubber stamp made that said "I never write letters. E. Hemingway," that he used to reply to fan letters. I didn't write down the address. He had a lot of cats, whose offspring were still wandering the premises.

    Keep up the good work and repeal all gun laws now!

  3. I'm reminded of the quote about staying silent and being thought an idiot vs. opening one's mouth and removing all doubt. Also, agree with el the syllable vs. L the letter in describing the CTA light rail service. A single capital letter just seems so...out of place.

  4. I think we can safely assume that your pedantic librarian is leading a miserable lonely life.

    I like the rationale for not adopting the CTA's preferred spelling. It's not just that it's the capital letter, it's the single quote marks as well.

  5. I'm just stunned that someone took the time to photocopy the pages and send them snail mail.

    That's some serious need to degrade others. I bet MBG couldn't get published.

  6. I've had this happen a few times, once when I sought to correct you on an entrance to Union Station, thinking you meant the Northwestern Station. Your response was quick and sharp, although I've still made the I-think-you're-wrong mistake since.

  7. Hey, I'll be happy to carp about something, while hoping not to be too arrogant! "Not to mention hearing, still, from those unhappy about Wednesday's Hot Doug's column." "Still?" 2 whole days later? Unless it's the same person hectoring you on multiple occasions, 2 days isn't that far behind for somebody to be on reading your columns, I gotta say. Why, I carped about that column on Thursday, myself, not because I'd been stewing about it for a day and a half, but because that's when I read it. I'd think that you'd be happy that your work has more than a one-day shelf life -- one of the benefits that accompany the many downsides of how the internet is affecting your industry. But your use of "still" demonstrates, to me, the tendency for everything to grow stale so fast, because of the constant bombardment of the "new" on the web. I haven't read "The Case for Reparations" yet, but feel like it came out about 6 months ago, while in the old days, one would have had a whole *month* before one might have felt one was behind on a magazine article!

    You write: "if you work at the Chicago Historical Museum." Your new favorite librarian had *that* right, anyway. It's the Chicago History Museum, as you had it above.

    But now I'll agree about something! I like "el" better than "L," too...

    1. Thanks for the correction. I'll fix it in the copy. I don't think tiring of anonymous contempt is a sign of wavering attention.

  8. We used to call the Chicago Historical Society, which changed its name the the Chicago HIstory Musuem, the "Chicago Hysterical Society" because so many people who worked there were hysterical in at least two senses of the word. Great column, even w/o the praise for me.

  9. That librarian is a smug and miserable one indeed.


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