Friday, September 18, 2009

A copy editor's job description

My son, J.P., recounts that one of his high school classmates said of me that “he was the most intimidating of my friends’ parents, because his job was to know as much as possible.”

That is it: An effective editor can never know too much, and will never know enough.

To the books, citizens!

In the clamor over revamping the health care system, the term illegal immigrants is surfacing again. But before our good native-born fellow citizens hit the streets with their pitchforks and torches, they might consider the following set of questions.

These ten questions — all taken from the test that an immigrant must pass to acquire U.S. citizenship — were administered to a thousand Oklahoma public high school students. About three percent of them got enough correct answers to pass the citizenship test.* I entertain deep suspicions that those thousand Oklahoma high school students are not anomalous.

But I also doubt that raising this point will bring any measure of humility or restraint to the discussion of immigration.

What is the supreme law of the land?

What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?

What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?

How many justices are there on the Supreme Court?

Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?

What ocean is on the east coast of the United States?

What are the two major political parties in the United States?

We elect a U.S. senator for how many years?

Who was the first President of the United States?

Who is in charge of the executive branch?

No, dammit, I am not going to give you the answers.

*The article about this experiment can be found here. Thanks, @Fritinancy, for the tip.

A personal note at the Johnson tercentenary

“Greek, sir, is like lace,” said Samuel Johnson; “every man gets as much of it as he can.” Fashions in men’s clothing and, sadly, learning have changed since the eighteenth century, and not all of Johnson’s advice remains applicable. But the great lexicographer, critic, essayist, and poet, born three hundred years ago today, has much to say that we would do well to hear.

One caricature of Johnson that has come down to us is the roaring Tory. He did “talk for victory,” and, in a sublime understatement in James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, he was “sometimes a little actuated by the spirit of contradiction.” But he was a complex personality, and deeply humane.

He knew what it was to be poor without a place to spend the night. He knew the grind of turning out hackwork for small pay. He knew the horror of depression and breakdown, and the fear of its return. He knew himself to be ugly, even physically repulsive. His struggles with his own disabilities and disadvantages gave him an insight into and sympathy with the struggles of other human beings.

In No. 14 of the Rambler he wrote:

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues, which he neglects to practise; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.

In No. 60, the great essay on the writing of biography, he summed up:

We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.

Human life, he saw, was a struggle “in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.” His own career is mirrored in the famous line from his poem London:


And yet, all this granted, he had a genius for friendship, a relish of conversation, and — despite his self-condemnations for indolence and procrastination — an energy to take on and complete huge and complex tasks. One of the things that ring most true in Boswell’s grand biography is his image of Johnson as a gladiator in the amphitheater of his own mind, heroically combating the apprehensions that beset him.

Twenty years ago, in a vacation in London, I made a pilgrimage to the garret in Gough Square where, sitting in a defective chair propped against a wall, Johnson labored for nearly nine years to produce the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, and I stood, my head bowed, for a moment at his grave in Westminster Abbey.

His work and his example merit our attention and respect.