The divine Lynne Truss, patron saint of sticklers everywhere, frets thusly in her best-selling book Eats, Shoots & Leaves:
“How long will it be before a mainstream publisher allows an illiterate title into print? How long before the last few punctuation sticklers are obliged to take refuge together in caves?” (page 28)
And for a long time, I must admit, I have fretted with her. But surely (I told myself) such worries only arose from my lack of a sense of proportion, which as Truss herself noted, is usually in deficit among sticklers. With these and other like thoughts I naively comforted myself, not knowing that my worst fears (and Truss’) would soon become bitter reality.
So it was that, in my innocence, I picked up a second-hand copy of William Rosen’s recent book, Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe (New York: Viking, 2007). A promising subject, I thought; after all, there aren’t all that many popular treatments of the reign of Emperor St Justinian, or of Byzantine topics, more generally. What I witnessed inside those covers, however, was ghastlier than a thousand ghouls. It started in page 1, with this:
“The best solutions to three-or-more-body problems, in fact, are only approximations . . . though, with the help of powerful computers, those approximations can be extremely precise.”
And it repeated itself constantly, every few pages, up until the very last page of text, where we read:
“The invading army consisted of Crimean Mongols and soldiers from Venice . . . like its bitter rival Genoa, one of the Italian city-states that formed in the peninsula as imperial control receded.” (page 325)
Yes, my gentle snowflakes: Rosen consistently treats the ellipsis, to borrow Truss’ expression, “as a subspecies of the dash”! Well, color me dismayed. I cannot think of a single more distracting or annoying bad habit of some people who can otherwise write well. At once I turned to the acknowledgements to find out who were the unfortunate editors (of a mainstream publisher, no less!) that would allow so ill-punctuated a book to see the light of day, only to read this:
“After several decades of editing and publishing books by others, one acquires some unfortunate habits, such as reading a book’s acknowledgments first, sometimes to acquire professional intelligence, sometimes to decode the ways in which authors express gratitude.” (page 327)
And sometimes to find out that a grievously transgressing author is a former long-time editor. I felt my heart drop. He was one of us! And not only that, his book apparently received lavish editorial attention:
“As a one time editor myself, I have reminded authors beyond counting that everyone needs editing. I have been both happy and fortunate to be reminded of it myself, this time by Will Sulkin at Jonathan Cape, and especially Rick Kot at Viking, men of skill taste, and great kindness. Their respective staffs—Rosalind Porter at Cape, Alessandra Lusardi and Laura Tisdel at Viking (as well as Jennifer Tait, who supervised the book’s production)—have been unfailingly helpful and intimidatingly efficient.” (pages 327-8)
But apparently none of them efficient enough to spot scores upon scores of misused ellipses, or else (and perhaps more likely) not aggressive enough to prevail.
In the end, the book whose mainstream publication signals the imminent exile of all sticklers to the dens and caves of the earth was written by an editor, and it did not sport an illiterate title for all to see, but rather hid its persistent, illiterate use of punctuation between its covers. I suppose, however, that we should count our blessings: the title could well have been Justinian’s . . . Flea.
(As for the actual subject matter of the book, I am afraid I cannot comment, since my shock has thus far prevented me from engaging it at any level beyond the punctuational.)
Note. Any parties wishing to engage my editorial services on account of the manifestation of my inner stickler are certainly welcome to do so; for my part, I assure them that I will do everything in my power so that they may become living illustrations of Dr Johnson’s definition of the word patron: “A wretch who supports with indolence, and is paid with flattery.”