Book Wise: Burden of Proof

We readers owe our pleasures to an unsung army

Published - September 09, 2011 05:14 pm IST



A proof-reader's road is lonely, silent and long. Hardly anyone knows about the 99 mistakes corrected on a page, but everyone spots the one that got away. When I began my professional life as a proof-reader, I was trained to overturn my ingrained reading habits. That is, to ignore the narrative and to ensure every letter, comma and full stop was in its proper place. I soon graduated to editing and went back to “real reading.” But recently, in spite of a desk piled high with work, I jumped at the chance to proof-read, unpaid, for Dickens Journals Online.

The Dickens Journals Online project will give us, by 2012, free online access to the numerous periodicals “conducted” by Charles Dickens. The printed pages have been optically scanned into digital form. The digital pages need to be corrected by humans, since the scanner sometimes misreads spots and broken letters in the originals. The manpower available for the task amounted to three people, so the organisers of the project called for volunteers, who came in droves. All the volumes are now being corrected, and we can already read many pages online.

During his career, Dickens edited “Household Words,” “Household Words Narrative,” “All the Year Round,” and other periodicals. Each volume featured an instalment of a novel, by Dickens or someone else, short stories, and articles on issues Dickens cared about, from meat markets to mental asylums. The serial publication of the novels generated high excitement.

The story is often told of readers who swarmed the New York City docks to ask sailors from English ports whether Little Nell lived or died at the end of “The Old Curiosity Shop.” So when we scroll through a volume of “Household Words,” we experience Victorian literature almost as a Victorian would have experienced it. To help correct the text was a privilege.

I hit gold on the very first of my assigned 24 pages, which started with an instalment of Wilkie Collins' thriller “The Woman in White.” This instalment did not star Laura Fairlie and her sister Marian, or the bloodcurdling villains who hound them. Instead, they contained the dry testimony of the lawyer who drew up Laura's pre-nuptial agreement, explaining the way it settled her land and fortune. The reader discovers that the broke baronet who marries Laura will inherit 20,000 pounds when she dies.

I have read the story at least twenty times. I knew exactly what would happen next, but still I stopped breathing as I read. I also missed some end-of-line hyphens that I should have deleted. An efficient proof-reader is not supposed to lose herself in the text.

Collins leaves us in suspense, of course, at the end of the segment. I slumped in my seat and went on to the next article. It was a good hour before I remembered I could read my own copy of the novel anytime. Now the corrections are done, and I am free to lose myself again in the perils of Laura Fairlie.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.