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The Typo as Season's Greeting

December 27, 1987|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

Typographical errors (and the innumerable pre-typographical errors blamed on typography) are officially the enemy. Unofficially, they are friends, merry messengers bringing secrets from the silent night of all that has not yet been said. And they are never more welcome than at this season.

When I notice an error in a book review proof, I visit upon it, of course, the full measure of what the law here requires, but sometimes, be it known, I do my stern duty slowly. Sometimes, instead of immediately correcting the error to fit the text of which it is a part, I consider correcting the text to fit the error. This is no recipe for efficiency, but it provides wonderfully rewarding moments.

One reviewer recently wrote of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev lost in the "disarmament maize." He meant maze , of course, but how pleasant to dream of swords beaten into plowshares and the hungry being fed from fields that the world might well call, gratefully, "disarmament maize," "disarmament wheat," "disarmament sorghum," etc. As a small boy I was once lost in the maize on a farm near McHenry, Ill. The towering stalks were a little frightening at first, but then I heard my father calling to me. We kept calling back and forth until I found my way out. Lost in the maize wasn't so bad.

Some months ago a review of the letters of G. B. Shaw contained a reference to "this shawl scholar." Shaw scholar was intended, but consider the possibilities of shawl scholarship. Think of the fascinating old women a shawl scholar might meet. Imagine the section on serapes and a field trip to a place like Oaxaca, or an appendix on men who wear shawls, Jewish men, of course, Jewish men at prayer. Imagine the cosmic shawl of medieval triptychs of the Virgin Mary, all mankind gathered beneath a mother's mantle. Like J. L. Borges, one begins to write the review of an unwritten book.

Lost in the maize and shawl scholar come to mind during the holiday season because noise, as well as silence, is heightened at this time of the year. Dec. 31, noisy night, follows silent night by just a week. I let the noise of the very end of the year stand for everything in the preceding 12 months that somehow got through, made it, got written, got done. I let the silence of nochebuena , a week earlier, stand for everything that, like those intercepted phrases, was stopped at the border.

The noise and the silence, the published and the unpublished, the closing chord and the pause that follows it. In one edition of Beethoven's piano sonata Opus 13, the closing chord is followed by a held rest. A pianist may hold a tone, but how do you hold a final rest? How does the hearer know when the silence has been released?

That held final rest stands, I like to think, for all the notes that might have been written in the preceding composition but weren't, a moment of silence not for the remembrance of the dead but in imagination of the withheld music that may yet come to be.

I know of some writers who hoped to complete new work during 1987 and did not. I know of others who did but could not find a publisher. I am often pointedly reminded of many who found a publisher but received inadequate review attention. Finally, however, I know of many non-writers, readers who are content to abide in an unpublished but richly furnished and populated silence. If it were not for them, where would the writers be? If it were not for them, what would the writing even mean?

This column started out to be a tour of Christmas fiction past and present. Anthony Trollope wrote a Christmas story every year for many years. I was going to talk about one of them. I have just finished William Wharton's fine new novel "Tidings" (Holt) about an American family celebrating Christmas in France and singing the French carols. ( Cantique de Noel, a wheezebag in the English version, "O Holy Night," has an utterly different effect in French.) In the end, what came to hand was E. M. Forster's "A Passage to India" and the climactic scene in which the Christian nativity festival dissolves in a Hindu one and becomes a new revelation for the English writer. The revelation is of the benignity of error and, simultaneously, of the limitations of mere good taste:

"Hundreds of electric lights had been lit in His (the God's) honour (worked by an engine whose thumps destroyed the rhythm of the hymn). Yet His face could not be seen. Hundreds of His silver dishes were piled around Him with the minimum of effect. The inscriptions which the poets of the State had composed were hung where they could not be read, or had twitched their drawing-pins out of the stucco, and one of them (composed in English to indicate His universality) consisted, by an unfortunate slip of the draughtsman, of the words, 'God si Love."'

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