Burn This Book?

I like to write, but the thought of writing an eight volume history of the United States, each volume well over a thousand pages, is more than somewhat daunting. So I stand in awe of Page Smith, who pulled it off – sort of. I’ve been working may way through Volume Four, The Nation Comes of Age, McGraw Hill, 1981, which takes us from about 1820 to 1860 as background for my biography of James W. C. Pennington and I am troubled by the thought of a highschool student somewhere using it as a source. Error free it is not.

I would give the editor high marks for catching typos. I noted only one in 1200 pages: “moral terror” is usually spelled “mortal.” But more attention to opacity would have been helpful. Dense prose in a book already too heavy to hold is a real problem. For example, tell me what the word “inefficiency” is doing in this sentence: “All that was archaic, foolish, and arrogant in English life was being demonstrated in the inefficiency and criminal waste of life occasioned by the siege.” Did the siege cause inefficiency and, if so, how, or was the waste of life inefficient?

But let’s get down to facts. In a history book of some 1200 pages covering everything from western exploration to New England transcendentalists, facts are important. One might reasonably expect a few errors but when the errors in the field one knows are egregious, one wonders whether it is possible to trust anything the author says elsewhere.

Example: I happen to know a lot about James W. C. Pennington, who is discussed briefly on page 642. He was not, as stated there, a cousin of Henry Garnet or even related to him. He did not “join Garnet, Brown, Douglass, and others on the lecture circuit,” and he was not, when he married Frederick Douglass and his fiancé a “Presbyterian minister.” It is also not true that “he was not allowed to speak at Yale College.” He was not allowed to register as a student at Yale or to speak while auditing classes, but that is rather different. All that in one brief paragraph.

Example 2: I don’t know much about Washington Allston Washington but I have seen copies of his painting entitled “Belshazzar’s Feast” now in the Boston Athenaeum. Smith tells us on page 923 (who is still noticing by page 923?), “The subject was, of course, the biblical story of Daniel and the children condemned to the fiery furnace and the mysterious writing on the wall, ‘mene, mene, tekel.’” That is somewhat like telling us that Rembrandt’s “Descent from the Cross” has as it’s subject the Biblical story of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount and the words, “Father, forgive them for they know.”

Example 3: It took me several days and a trip to New Haven to understand what was wrong with Smith’s reference to James Gordon Bennett as editor of the New York Tribune. The problem is that Bennett was editor of the New York Herald and Horace Greeley was editor of the New York Tribune. Such errors are expensive. It costs me $75 by IRS car expense standards to do the round trip to New Haven. Smith owes me!

Example 4: One can be excused for not being well informed about James W. C. Pennington and maybe even the Book of Daniel, but is it possible for any educated person to refer to the Book of Common Prayer as “written in the reign of King John?” (Page 513) After that it would not be surprising to find a reference to “Robert E. Lee’s Gettysburg Address!”

Now what should a responsible citizen do on encountering such stupefying errors in a borrowed book? Burn it? But it isn’t my book. Return the book to the library for use by others– making me co-responsible? Mark up the pages with exclamation points and corrections? Tacky. Write to McGraw Hill to suggest they issue a “product safety alert?” Or should I just hope that maybe no one else will ever read it? I would appreciate advice.

1 Comment

LibbyJune 27th, 2009 at 4:30 am

I think I'd write the publisher, or the author c/o the publisher, noting the errors so they can correct them in a future edition, or issue an errata list. It's not perfect, but it's something.

I recently read an advance reader copy of a book that had a significant error (the author had the protagonist winning an athletic scholarship to an Ivy League school) and I wrote the publisher. Haven't seen the final copy, but at least in that case there was the possibility that they'd fix the error.

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