Proofs and Three Parables, by George Steiner

The Wikipedia entry on Proofreading includes four works of fiction in which one of the characters is a proofreader. The novella Proofs is one of them.

The professore is one of the more memorable protagonists I've encountered in a long time. His skill as a proofreader is unrivaled. No mistake escapes him, however tiny, in the most trivial printing jobs. His eyesight has been damaged by years of exacting work, exacerbated by self-neglect, and he may be going blind.

Alas, this is a subplot.

The novella deals mainly with the fall of Communism. It's the most readable thing I've seen on the topic, brief yet illuminating, simple without being simplistic, not as boring as I'm making it sound. The author is also passionately concerned with the tradition, culture, and fate of Judaism.

But I'd rather dwell on the professore's character as a proofreader because, well, you do know what this website is about, right?

Now the burn seemed to smart behind his eyes.

Thirty years and more a master of his craft. The quickest, most accurate of proof-readers and correctors in the whole city, perhaps in the province. Working every night, and throughout the night. So that the legal records, deeds of sale, notifications of public finance, contracts, quotations on the bourse, would appear in the morning, flawless, exact to the decimal point. He had not rival in the arts of scruple. They gave him the smallest print to check, the longest columns of figures to justify, the interminable catalogues of lost and found to be auctioned for the post-office and public transport. His proof-readings of the bi-annual telephone directory, of electoral and census rolls, of municipal minutes, were legend. Printing works, the public record office, the courts of law vied for his labours.

But now the sensation of burning, just behind his eyes, felt sharper.

With an opening like that, the reader must read on. I know I did.

(For the record, I've only been editing for 26 years, and I use Word to zoom in on small fonts all the time. No phone books, but I've done some awesome work with sales catalogs.)

He hated litter. Waste paper struck him as the very waste of waste. At times, if the winds blew a piece towards his feet, he would pick it up, smooth it, read closely and make any correction needed. Then he would deposit it in the garbage receptacle, feeling obscurely rewarded and saddened. Any witness to this rite would have thought him deranged.

I've never done this, even though I do pick up litter. The professore is "a man whose obsessive scruple in respect of the minutiae of print, whose bristling distaste in the face of the approximate and the loosely mistaken, were magisterial and pedantic to a degree." He's also the kind of man I'd debate the Oxford comma with, but I fear I'd lose in the face of his stamina.

Since I mentioned Judaism, let me quote the professore.

Do you know what the Kabbala teaches? That the sum total of the evil and miseries of mankind arose when a lazy or incompetent scribe misheard, took down erroneously, a single letter, one single solitary letter, in Holy Writ. Every horror since has come on us through and because of that one erratum.

When his replacement replies that proofreading a hand-bill for an auction of used farm implements and manure sacks isn't important enough to demand perfection, the professore disagrees.

It is just here that it matters more than ever before. To act otherwise is utter contempt. Contempt for those who cannot afford to look at a fine book, at quality paper or crafted type. Contempt for those who have a right under God, yes, under God, to have a flawless hand-bill, also for a sale of manure! It is just for those who live in rural holes, in slums, that we should do the best work. So that some spark of perfection will enter their wretched days. Can't you understand, how much contempt there is in a false accent or a misplaced serif? As if you spat at another human being.

When you do business with Michael Edits, I hope you're not hoping to hire the professore. But there is a certain mindset you want, and it includes demanding perfection of every document I edit. I can't work any other way.

Updated June 21, 2017
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Durham, North Carolina 27707