Poor Editing

I’ve read several books in the last couple of years that irritated me because they represented my general position on things but were poorly edited. When I say poorly edited, I don’t mean that there was a typo or two. I can’t remember the last time I read a book free of typos; typos aren’t great, but they happen, and running across a couple of them doesn’t spoil a book for me. When I say poorly edited, I mean that there are gross errors of grammar and (sometimes) structure, or just a failure to trim the text down to what’s relevant and useful, that renders the book a poor representation of my position. If a salesperson’s pitch is full of grammatical flubs and is poorly organized, he’s not as likely to sell to me as he is if his pitch is coherent and sharp. Likewise, if a prominent person purveying an idea I support does so poorly, it irritates me because it’s a failure to present the idea in the best light possible.

Two such books I’ve read recently include The Fundamentals of Extremism (a collection of essays) and Can We Be Good Without God? The latter was fairly well structured and was by and large a good read, but it was riddled with typographical and other minor errors. I was reviewing the book for the publisher (Prometheus), and after reading it, I sent a couple of pages of suggested corrections to the editor. I know this seems smug and self-congratulatory, but that’s really not how I intended it. I just want the next edition (if there is one) to be improved so that the ideas aren’t immediately stripped of credibility by issues easily caught and more easily resolved. The former book was a different case altogether. A collection of essays by different authors about the religious fundamentalist movement in America, it naturally had some inconsistencies of tone and style. These are forgivable. And it had the usual (probably more than the usual) frequency of typos and grammatical anomalies. These were borderline forgivable. What really bothered me about what I read of this book (I couldn’t bring myself to finish it) was its density in places and its distribution of information, often internally redundant, that I already knew. This last circumstance doesn’t necessarily condemn the book; after all, it may just be that I know more about these issues than your average person or that the book is in fact targeted toward those (the fundamentalists and those curious about them) who do need to learn these facts from just such a book. There was no one thing about this book that was wholly unforgiveable, but the various things I perceived as problematic about the collection render it to my mind not a book that I would hold up proudly as an instrument supporting my worldview.

Another poorly edited item that comes to mind here is a tee-shirt I saw a few years ago containing a pithy comment (which I forget) the cleverness and punch of which were undercut by a glaring and painful apostrophe error that screamed “those who support this position are too stupid to express the position beyond a first-grade reading level; the position itself must therefore be unsophisticated.”

Part of the problem, of course, is that non-mainstream thinking is often published by non-mainstream vendors. A tee-shirt produced by a major organization stands a greater chance of being well-edited than a shirt whose message is composed of adhesive felt letters by an enthusiastic if grammatically-challenged individual. Random House has a much greater budget and astronomically more resources to throw at editing books than Prometheus or, say, The Atlanta Freethought Society.

Which brings me closer to where I actually intend to go. The AFS published Massimo Pigliucci’s first non-technical book, Tales of the Rational. It’s a book in the same basic vein as Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World that seeks to reclaim science from religious fundamentalists, and as noted above, books that aren’t likely to gain a major foothold in the maintream readership (and a book proscribing religion as a way of understanding the world by someone just making a name for himself surely is one of these) aren’t typically picked up by major publishing houses. And so they’re often not the best-edited books. This is surely the case with Tales of the Rational, another offering that I put down partway through because I was so irritated by the simple errors. Reading books like this makes me want to call the authors and volunteer to read them (free of charge) prior to publication to fix the errors that would otherwise slip through the cracks; I want, in short, to ensure that editorial failure doesn’t undermine the good ideas in such books.

I recently got my hands on a copy of Pigliucci’s latest book, Denying Evolution, which purports not only to explain where the fundamentalists are wrong about evolution, but also to propose that the general failure among the public to understand the theory is largely the fault of scientists and educators rather than of malicious and darkling evangelists. Denying Evolution is published by Sinauer, by no means one of the gargantuan presses (they have only about 100 titles under their belt), but one that specializes in scientific texts, with an emphasis (they say) on quality. So far, I find this emphasis to be pretty much on target. I’m about 40 pages into the book, and I’ve found only one typo (“crationism” should be “creationism” in Figure 1.1 on page 6). The editing seems to be very good by and large, not only in terms of correcting any typos that may have appeared in the manuscript, but also in terms of pacing the text and ensuring that maximum information is purveyed in minimal space in prose that is very readable (unlike The Fundamentals of Extremism, for example, which is dense and uneven within and across essays).

So far, the book is one I would be happy to send out as a general ambassador for my ideas, one I don’t necessarily wish I had gotten my hands on before it was sent to the press. It starts with a brief history of Pigliucci’s motivation for becoming active in the evolution debate — a pretty understandable entanglement for a young evolutionary biologist suddenly thrust into the wilds of Tennessee, home of the Scopes trial. Pigliucci then gives a history of the evolution/creationism debate, suggesting that it it perhaps hotter now than it has been at various times since Darwin published his ideas in the mid 1800s. I found the history interesting and pretty concise, and I learned some things. My only beef with it is a mild unevenness of analysis. For example, Pigliucci questions what’s behind the hotness of the debate in the American South, noting that in the years following Darwin’s publication, the number of scientists in the South was roughly equivalent to those elsewhere in the country. But the debate hasn’t been between scientists and scientists so much as between the religious and the secular, in many cases between the more and the less literate. And illiteracy and the lack of a general desire to live the examined life has been documented in the South by such figures as H.L. Mencken, whom Pigliucci mentions later in his history for his report on the Scopes trial. The issue I’m getting at here is a tendency (common among authors of all stripes, probably, in all honesty, out of a sort of time-efficiency necessity) to examine only the immediately relevant portions of a person’s work. Mentioning Mencken in connection with this debate without bringing up his often vicious condemnation of the South as a den of stupidity and cultural/intellectual laziness amounts to incomplete analysis.

Of course, Southern culture isn’t Pigliucci’s focus, and so it’s not necessarily appropriate for him to write a dissertation on Mencken, but it strikes me as name-droppish to mention a prominement figure without giving a more full consideration to his notions. And, looking at the lengthy index of names invoked in the book, I can’t help wondering if this will be a problem throughout.

This is a pretty small beef, though, and certainly not one to bar my continued reading of the book. Besides, for all I know, Pigliucci does give further consideration to the elements of Southern culture that have led to its poor reception of evolutionary theory. In any case, so far, I don’t think this book is a victim of poor editing, and I look forward to plowing ahead.

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