Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Pencil of a Bluish Tint

There's a famous line by someone whose name I can't quite remember -- Dick Charles? -- that was a, no, THE bone of contention between my mother and me, ever since, once upon a time, she assigned me a serious book for summer reading.

I have forgotten exactly why. Some combination of reasoning and false(?) memory suggests she was long tired of seeing me re-reading Bruce Lee's biography, and at some moment when I was being an annoying child (picking on my sister?) and too much around the house and she could not believe school wasn't going to start for another six weeks, she snapped and handed me this book and told me to go read it.

Now, in addition to this being a famous line, it's also a famous opening line. Probably good reasons for that, but I used to wonder how much the positioning inflated the number of people who knew it. I suspected that not that many other people made it much further into the book before coming to the same conclusion I had.

(Come to that, few people when quoting this line ever make it anywhere near the end of the ACTUAL FIRST SENTENCE. But I digress.)

Well, the battle raged most of the rest of the summer -- I'd be sent to my room and told to read some number of pages, I'd go up, couldn't or wouldn't get through it, I'd be found lurking elsewhere -- Finished? Uh, yeah. -- she'd quiz me, I'd try to BS my way through, go to line 1, infinite loop.

I never did finish the book, but somehow, she did not ship me off to a foster home or have me guillotined. As part of her revenge, or to show by joking that she had gotten over it, or both, she spent the next couple of decades sending me newspaper and magazine clippings whenever she saw that line used. Other family members and friends of hers picked up on the habit. For a while there, I almost dreaded opening envelopes.

Anyway, all that came to mind when I was reading a fine post by Joe Posnanski (strike modifier as redundant), in which he was griping about being at a funeral where the pastor read some reworked version of the 23rd Psalm. As Joe says, there really is no improving Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death … I will fear no evil. At least in this language.

This led him into other memories of bad editing, whereupon I came across this:

I have worked with editors all of my professional life. Some have been brilliant. Some, maybe not. Editors have saved me on countless occasions and made my writing better, what, 97% of the time. This blog post, clearly, could use an editor. Of course, there are also many famous editing nightmares. I remember reading in Boys of Summer the famous story of Dave Anderson who, after the Dodgers made numerous errors in a game, led with the brilliant “They died with their boots,” which was changed by an editor to the suddenly incomprehensible “They died with their boots on.”

I have a friend who, writing about record-setting milk cow, led with the reasonably droll, “She’s supercow.” It was changed by an editor to the not so droll “She’s a super cow!” — a cringe-worthy change, but the reason is even worse. The editor changed it because … “supercow” did not come up on spellcheck. I have a couple of stories of my own, of course, but they’re boring*.

*I also remember Dan Jenkins’ brilliant bit in “Ya Gotta Play Hurt,” where he imagined famous leads of history as rewritten by the desk. The most hilarious and likely of those:

“It was the best of times and, ironically, the worst of times.”

Yeah, I really know the author's name. Just being an annoying child. And many years later, I was assigned Hard Times in a British History class and loved it. So, I may get to An Endless Disquisition on London and Paris one of these years. Or whatever the title is.

Meantime, see Joe.


[Update 2010-09-25 Old link changed to point to his new home at Sports Illustrated.]


TC said...

There is a term "hell for stout" which is variously ascribed to engineers or builders of certain boats. It means over-built. It was high praise to say that something was "hell for stout" meaning very well built of sturdy material. I remember a letter to the editor from an author complaining that his copy had been changed from "hell for stout" to "stout as hell." The editor did not know the history of the term and did not know the implication of the phrase beyond the definition of the words and as a result changed it to be more "understandable."

Four score and seven years ago... Abe should have said 87 years ago to be clear...

When in the course of human events... Tom should have said "Any time in history..."

It sounds like you should have listened to your mother more often... :-)

bjkeefe said...


Great comment.

As to my Mom: always listened, which is not to say obeyed. I was collecting resentments from the get-go, just like any other healthy American child. ;^)