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."

Errata lists, Smyth argues, were "one of print's signature traits," and writers like Spenser knew that so well that it influenced what they wrote, he says. Another meta example of a writer responding to the wobbliness of print comes from the 17th century work (and reworking) of John Milton, whose famous defense of free speech, Areopagitica, also offers a defense of errors as "ethically important." He weaves together these two ideas by arguing it is a person's right to wander through a book and determine its quality for himself, rather than having censors do it preemptively for him. "We need mistakes," Smyth says. "The Latin root of error is errare, meaning to wander, and—like knights in a romance—Milton’s readers should meander into forests of bad texts to establish and test their virtue."

Here's how Milton explained it in Areopagitica: "He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian."

But there's a sort of crazy footnote to this section, Smyth points out. In copies of Areopagitica from 1644, "warfaring" was actually printed as "wayfaring"—which of course echoes the Latin root of "error," or errare. In many of those early copies, the "y" of "wayfaring" was crossed out and replaced with "r." Scholars believe Milton may have even done this himself. So maybe it was an attempt to correct a printing mistake, but, Smyth says, it's every bit as possible that the change to "warfaring" was  "a post-print, authorial second-thought."

Smyth sees this change as emblematic of the larger culture around errors and the printed word, representative of the individual experience of encountering errors in print—where "wayfaring" is something you do alone, and "warfaring" is an external conflict. And so: In these early, corrected copies of Areopagitica, the reader encounters an added layer of richness in having to reconcile the two terms, almost such that it's "impossible to read one without the other," Smyth says. "What is created is an oscillation between ‘way’ and ‘war’ which performs a sense of error as both eternally present—something that happens to books, including books about the necessity of error—and morally, and hermeneutically, productive."

Today, the productivity of altered text—the extent to which we can examine changes as a way to better understand a piece of writing—is fluid and at times hard to track. It's why sites like NewsDiffs, which collects and compares post-publication changes to news articles, are so useful. Because even the news organizations that are diligent about issuing corrections don't always flag updates to stories, or the swapping out of one word for another. The standard, journalists often say, is that noting an update isn't necessary if it doesn't fundamentally change the meaning of the story. Which is reasonable, maybe, but you can't help but wonder whether a change of "wayfaring" to "warfaring" would make the cut.

Print has never been inherently more reliable or less prone to error than the forms that came after it. And with instant real-time distribution and unlimited republishing capabilities, the Internet has the potential to be vastly more reliable for up-to-date information. Yet today's errata trails are brushed away with the ease of republishing cleanly online, and this reveals something about the way we've too often viewed technological upgrades in publishing. Once again, Smyth:

Histories of technology often take a sterner, starker line, organising themselves as stories of the gradual elimination of error: they cast earlier technologies (handwritten manuscripts; early hand-press print; early machine printing; early digital technology, etc) as error-prone, in contrast to later, sturdier, more modern media. But we might think of error not as a bug to be killed off, but as an inevitable presence; and not, perhaps, even as something always regrettable, but as an aspect of writing, printing, and of life, that is always there.