A Corrected History of the Typo

In the beginning, print was not about perfection; it was a space for collaboration. 

These days, a lot of people imbue the printed word with a sense of irrevocability. Print is physical. It is serious. It is, nostalgists like to argue, somehow better—more infused with truth, more meticulously assembled—than its pixelated counterparts. 

But print's long history is riddled with errors and strikethroughs and rewrites— a fact worth celebrating and in some ways emulating, actually. In the earliest days of the book, writers and readers gathered around mistakes as a means of discourse about the work. When books were new, people saw them as fluid, changeable. Mistakes weren't as much lamented as they were expected, and people scrawled corrections over the text itself, in the margins, and on errata lists slipped between pages. 

"The history of early printing suggests, very strongly, that authors and printers weren't pursuing a kind of perfect text," said Adam Smyth, an English literature fellow at the University of Oxford who specializes in the instability of early modern texts and is hosting a conference about errors in print at Oxford next month. "Error was inevitable... and what authors and printers argued about was how much error and instability was acceptable for a book to be called a book. It was about tolerating, rather than eliminating, reasonable mistakes."

Errata lists in the early days of printed books, then, were themselves a sort of early comment section—the place where revisions were made and ideas were exchanged. They were "confessional spaces" and "emblems of a new culture of accuracy," but errata lists were also a way of seeing books as a collaboration between reader and writer, rather than just the one-way broadcasting of a set of ideas. Which means that print, in its infancy, didn't actually lead to "better, more accurate texts," but to "the dissemination of blunders," Smyth says. It is in this way that the dawn of book printing sounds a bit like where we find ourselves today on the Internet—a fluid and collaborative space for ideas that sometimes seems to be equal parts information-rich and error-riddled. The difference in early print, though, is that errors "were not hidden away." And while screengrabs capture some evaporated Internet writing for posterity, much of what's published today simply disappears or changes with all the imperceptibly of a distant keystroke. 

It's ironic, then, that the motivation behind erasing errors online is tangled up in the expectation that Internet text mirrors what we know of print. At a moment when print text and Internet text are overlapping, the latter is still trying to look like the former. The same way early TV was radio-esque, and early radio took cues from print, the first books tried to mirror the manuscripts that came before them. 

"Both print and the internet, as new technologies, worked to conceal their novelty," Smyth told me. "Early printed books often looked like handwritten manuscripts, just as Kindles today model themselves on printed books."

What we've lost, in many cases, online, isn't the integrity of print, but the traceability of its weaknesses. Centuries ago, "errata lists became, paradoxically, markers of well-made books." The made in "well-made" is a key word here. Mistakes can serve as reminders that books are made at all—the physicality of the process, the "connection between the book going wrong, momentarily, and a sense of the process of production being briefly revealed, or implied," as Smyth put it in a recent paper about print in Early Modern England. It's why readers relish newspaper typos—they represent the lifting of a veil, and hint at the human (and that human's fallibility) on the other end of the object. 

But more than giving a window into the physical process—the actual making—of book creation, acknowledging an error is a way of updating a book after its printing, a means by which the text evolves and changes over time. This helps explain some of the efforts to save 19th century marginalia—because a book is not just a reflection of the person who wrote it; but also, sometimes, the impression of its readers. Some readers, of course, leave more indelible marks than others.

Here's the errata list from Edmund Spenser's "The Faerie Queen," an epic poem from 1590: 

This Spenserian example is perfect, actually, given that the story of "The Faerie Queen" deals explicitly with the concept of error—by making it a rather horrifying character. 

"When Edmund Spenser imagines error personified, he sees a kind of monstrous version of print," Smyth says. "Error: half woman, half serpent, ‘lothsom, filthie, foule’—and bookish. Not only was ‘Her vomit full of bookes and papers’, but her ‘curs-ed spawne’ were ‘fowle, and blacke as inke.’ ‘God helpe the man so wrapt in Errours endlesse traine,’ laments Una, watching on."

Presented by

Adrienne LaFrance

Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Technology Channel. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBURMore

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications. 

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