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The beleaguered and exalted proofreader: Some things never change

While perusing 19th-century Canadiana for my bookselling history blog, I occasionally come across items about proofreaders—the catch-all term then applied to editors of any sort, it seems.

Some of these are so amusing, and some so recognizable to anyone in today’s publishing profession, that they must be shared (though the modern eye must overlook some obvious signs of the not-so-equal times).

In the April 1877 edition of The Printer’s Miscellany (published in Saint John, New Brunswick), the proofreader’s fate is not so much celebrated as lamented:

That much abused person, the proof-reader, seldom has roses thrown in his way in the shape of pleasant words. Perspiring under blazing gas jets for three hundred and sixty-five nights of the year, cursed by writers on one hand and type-setters on the other, the proofreader’s lot is not an easy one. The proof-reader is probably the most unanimously imprecated man in the world. It is impossible that he should satisfy anybody, and it were the sheerest folly for him to please everybody. Through weary hours he must apply himself intensely to matter which does not interest him; he must follow, not mechanically, but with his mind, disquisitions which are quite likely to be odious to him. He must correct the numerous blunders of writers, and rectify the manifold embellishments of the intelligent compositor. His information must be large and varied; he must possess an acquaintance with foreign terms in use in the language which he corrects, and must be able to rectify errors in orthography, grammar, geography, and history. His task is the most thankless one under heaven, for no writer ever admits the possibility of an error on his part, preferring to make the proof-reader a scape-goat for every fault. (p. 164)

The March 1894 issue of The Imprint (published by the Toronto Type Foundry) puts a much loftier spin on things (to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General,” no less!):

In the Gilbertesque epitome of simple indispensables,
Preliminary attributes and semi-comprehensibles,
I’ll relate with Ciceronian profusion and veracity
How a proofreader may hold his situation with tenacity:

If his eagle eye can pierce the penetration of orthography
And his mind be well imprinted with the symbols of phonography;
If he knows our arts and sciences, abstruse and elementary,
And is educated perfectly in matters parliamentary;

If in government statistics and legal technicalities,
From their most momentous details down to circumstantialities,
He can argue and bamboozle with professional verbosity
And cite the latest budget with official velocity;

If he knows our planet’s history, religious and political,
And is drilled in scriptural doctrines with austerity Levitical;
If he has a perfect knowledge of obstetrics and hydropathy
And an adequate perception of the laws of homeopathy,

Let him pose the genius loci as Sir Oracle immaculate
And answer all conundrums that his clients may ejaculate;
Let him traffic in agnostics with a clerical mendacity
And a proofreader may hold his situation with tenacity. (p. 157)

And finally, two items from the writer’s perspective. Not altogether impressed with us proofreading geniuses, a writer named Andrew Lang shared this “amusing story of an effort to get a certain remark into print without the interference of the proofreader” in the May 11, 1897, Vancouver Daily World:

[Lang] had written “The want of historical perspective which makes the moment hide the great abysm of time.” The reader queried “abysm,” and Mr. Lang noted “Shakespeare” on the proof as authority. The passage appeared “makes the moment hide the great Shakespeare of time.” (p. 3)

On the other hand, at a London gathering of proofreaders that was later reported on in The Printer’s Miscellany in January 1877, none other than Charles Dickens was full of praise:

I gratefully acknowledge that I have never gone through the sheets of any book that I have written without having had presented to me by the corrector of the press, something that I have overlooked, some slight inconsistency in which I have fallen, some little lapse I have made: in short…some unquestionable indication that I have been closely followed through my work by a patient and trained mind, and not merely by a skillful eye. (p. 92)

Working intensely through weary hours, able to bamboozle with professional verbosity, by turns cursed for major slip-ups and admired for attending to the details: for proofreaders—then, as now—it’s all in a day’s work.

This Post Has 3 Comments
  1. Made me smile and gasp with admiration for The Imprint writer’s erudition! How many modern proofreaders could fulfil these qualifications? And thanks for ending with Dickens’ praise!

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