Friday, June 29, 2007

Typo: The Last American Typesetter

In my senior year at Cornell, I suffered a classic adolescent identity crisis that, striking, as it did, a few years later than it does most people, caught me at a bad time. I found myself confused, dazed, depressed. My mind raced in what some have described as a fugue state. The doc at the mental health clinic said it was time for me to take a leave of absence. My parents were called. My father dropped everything and drove straight to Ithaca from Cleveland to help me pack up and to get me back home.

The school administration put their machinery into motion, and I was summoned to the office of an assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. The purpose of this visit was to ensure that I did nothing to harm myself while my father was coming for me.

So I was sitting in the dean’s office. The dean was, I would guess, in his mid-thirties, a humanities professor but not what you’d call a good schmoozer. He was at a loss for what to talk about, but he poked and prodded a bit to hear what I thought the reason was for my present crisis. I explained to him my understanding of my condition, which was a severe case of unrequited love (I know better now, but that’s what I thought it was then). He allowed as how getting drunk was probably a better treatment for that than dropping out of school, and then, in a dramatically unsuccessful effort to keep the conversation going, he blurted, “You Jews don’t drink much, do you?” It was an awkward moment.

But he had a point. Some years later, I married the daughter of an alcoholic. I found that I lacked the intuition for knowing when someone had been drinking or knowing that someone I encountered sober was nonetheless a drunk, whereas my wife could walk into a room and know those facts instantly about anyone present. I still lack that intuition.

So does David Silverman.

I promised a review of Silverman’s new book, and I’m a man of my word—which is more than can be claimed by the assorted scoundrels Silverman portrays in the book.

The problem with being an idealist—someone who believes in honest dealings in business; respect for employees, customers, and competitors; giving good value for money; an American meritocracy; personal integrity—is that a skilled liar will con you every time. And there are those people who have honed their skill on the practical necessity of hiding the fact that they are drunk. Silverman was an idealist, and he got conned big time. He believed too easily and he got played. I sympathize. Been there, done that, still have the expensive knit shirts with the logo I designed. Luckily, I didn’t end up with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and creditors chasing me. Unluckily, Silverman did.

To his credit, he tells an honest story and tells it well. This is the entertainingly written tale of trying to hang on to a vestige of a once-great industry that technology killed. Is it a new story? Not really. The phrase “buggy whip makers” covers the basic plot outline in three words. But Silverman keeps the story moving along, teaches the reader who might be interested in the way books are made something interesting about the realities of typesetting (and the technology), and fulfills the promise of the book’s long subtitle, “The Last American Typesetter, or How I Made and Lost $4 Million (An Entrepreneur’s Education).” If you’re thinking about changing careers and finally getting that MBA, read this book before you apply to B-school. The way you respond to it will tell you if you have what it takes. If you sympathize with the author, you’re not going to make it in business. If you sympathize with the people who killed his company, maybe you’ve got what it takes. We can’t all be tycoons.

The book itself, as an object, is another matter altogether. I like the cover (where the unofficial title is rendered much more gracefully than the official title on the title page, which ought to have been changed to match); but that’s where my like ends. True to its title, the book is chock full of typos—and I’m pretty sure this is not the result of postmodern ironic self-mockery. The copyediting, if there was any, is atrocious. The interior book design has a number of flaws. Some of the pages spent on Silverman’s appendix about typesetting could have been used for an index, which the book sorely needs. That appendix is full of factual errors and fails to cover some of the technologies that are referred to in the text of the book by name or abbreviation only, with no explanation anywhere. All of these shortcomings are the fault of the publishers, who should have done better. They would have done better if they’d called me, of course; but this isn’t about sour grapes. It’s about being ashamed that the publishing industry has sunk to such low standards that this level of quality is considered acceptable.

Anyway, it’s a good read, especially if you’ve had enough to drink that you don’t care about the typos.

1 comment:

Pageturners said...

Great review. It tells you about the book, from a personal angle, and it entertains you too.