Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Editor to Editor

I wrote a couple months ago about The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs. In that book, he recounts his attempt to keep all the biblical commandments for a year. I'm now reading The Know-It-All, Jacobs' account of his year reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica from cover to cover. They are both awesome books and I've decided that Jacobs, who is an editor at Esquire magazine, is my favorite contemporary writer.

In The Know-It-All, he organizes he book by letter, writing "entries" like an encylopedia. Some entries are simply the definitions or descriptions of a concept, phrased in Jacobs' own witty and humorous style. Most, however, are simply launching pads for stories and commentary on the experience of reading the encyclopedia like an obsessive freak. Is there a kid who didn't attempt this at one time or another? I know I did... maybe I'm just an obsessive freak too. I think I only made it to "acetate" or some other ridiculously early entry. Jacobs was partially inspired by his dad, who made it to the middle of the "B"s.

Anyway, I'm about a third of the way through the book--up to the middle of the "G" chapter--and found an excerpt I'd really like to share, given that it pertains to religion, the Bible, and the work of editing. As a religion scholar and an editor of religious books and church-related publications, I found it especially entertaining. (The following excerpt is abridged, and the bits in brackets are my comments.)

"Sometimes my day job can be exhilerating. I'm thinking, for instance, of when vineyards send me free bottles of wine hoping for coverage in the monthly wine column. [I've been getting free books in the mail recently, from other publishers hoping to be reviewed in Circuit Rider or Newscope, now that I manage those publications. What they don't realize is that Newscope doesn't do book reviews, and Circuit Rider lets its reviewers more or less choose their own books to review. I did get an advance copy of Eye of the Storm, by Gene Robinson, the gay Episcopal bishop--I saw him speak at Vanderbilt about a year ago, and he was really amazing. Anyway...]

"...But a lot of times, my workday can be boring... This is one of those times. As an editor, I have to read each of the articles in my section about forty-three times, until the sentences are sucked of all meaning and become wierd little black marks on the page. Today's article--a man's guide to shining shoes, military style--has long ago passed into a nonsensical state. 'Whorl'? That's a strange word... But at least the Britannica reading has given me some new perspective on my job. It's given me awareness of the power of editing. I'm thinking, for instance, of the Ems telegram in 1870. Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck edited the report of a diplomatic meeting to purposely offend the French and start the Franco-Prussian War. I'm not saying that as an editor, I want to start a war, but it's nice to know I could." [Reporting on the events of the United Methodist General Conference this week in Newscope gives a bit of that war-sparking opportunity as well, but it's really not worth it...]

Jacobs goes on to tell about the "Wicked Bible," an edition of the Bible published in 1631, in which the word "not" was accidentally omitted from Exodus 20:14, resulting in the commandment "Thou shalt commit adultery." He ponders the possibility of the editors' intentionality in the matter--if it was done as a joke. "Maybe they thought of changing 'Thou shalt not kill' to 'Thou shalt not spill'--which would have caused a lot of very carefully poured glasses of tea and a few hundred more homicides," Jacobs says. He continues:

"I ponder all this as I read Esquire's own shoe-related commandment: use 'small circles that tighten the whorl.' What if I changed 'small' to 'large' circles? I'd be sending hundreds of Esquire-reading men into their offices with improperly polished shoes. The power! I cross out the word 'small' in the sentence, then stet it, newly aware of my responsibility."

I had a moment like that this week, in which I edited a sentence for space purposes, then realized that the revised phrasing could possibly be interpreted to imply that a bishop was cozying up to another man's wife. I giggled out loud, then changed it back.

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