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Sunday Reading

Typo Casting : One Man Finds a Full Life in Pursuit of Errors on the Printed Page

November 23, 1986|JOE APPLEGATE | Joe Applegate is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.

The candles are out on birthday 36. I am fortunate enough to feel--no, I am fortunate enough to know, absolutely--that the life I have possessed for a time has not been wasted. Tonight, here in bed, while I was listening to the ballgame, my wife, Jane, was reading "Stuart Little" to our daughter, when she interrupted herself and said to me:

"Typo."

I turned down the volume. "What page?"

"Thirty-eight. It says, 'steet my ship,' when it should say 'steer.' "

She handed the book over for verification (a typographical error, in this household, doesn't count until independently corroborated), and while I noted the page number, the publisher (Harper & Row), and the edition (Book Club), Jane informed our guest that in my life, happiness is finding mistakes in print.

It has been a happy life, as far as typos go. The early years were unproductive, but whose are not? Mozart's? He had obligations early. Now that I think of it, I began coming into my own about the time our twins were born, in 1981. I remember sitting in the hospital with a gown over my clothes and Betadine smeared on my hands--just one of those hospital moments, wondering what day it was--and I happened to take a closer look at the instructions printed on the housing of the portable incubator parked next to me. They were in French (the machine was made in Canada), and where the preposition and definite article ought to have blended sweetly in an au was instead a discordant ou .

"Pardon me, nurse," I called to the back of the woman who swept by, bearing a trayful of something, "but the printing on this Isolette may be inaccurate."

A golden moment, lost for lack of verification.

Shall I go now to my office, pull down my notebook and relive other, more documented, moments?

No--no sentimentality here. Besides, I need no notebook to remember them.

On Page 640 of "Roget's International Thesaurus" (hard-bound, thumb-indexed, third edition; published by Crowell), a comma is omitted between two nouns in the list of Christian Science synonyms for God.

On Page 44 of "The Norton Critical Edition of 'The Wild Duck,' " Gregers' name is erroneously repeated.

And my masterwork: On Page 110 of the April 15, 1985, issue of The New Yorker, about halfway down the third column on the right, is a string of sentences with quotation marks at the end, but none at the beginning. Callooh! Callay!

What does it mean to have spent one's life in the pursuit of typos? Nabokov wrote of that thrilling instant when a thing in camouflage--an insect in this case--appears to one's enlarged recognition. Finding a typo is like that. Or more than that: It is like Life itself. A typo is the imperfection that makes perfection knowable to one's imperfect senses. Typos make divinity possible. Typos--"Who's winning?" Jane asks, switching off the lamp.

I re-adjust the volume and listen for the score.

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