Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the summer of 2010.
By Stuart Shotwell
They say that perfection is, like happiness, something that can be pursued but never permanently attained. Or as Swedenborg says, even throughout all eternity we can never be so completely regenerated as to be called perfect (Secrets of Heaven 5122:3). And if we ourselves are not perfect, neither are the products of our hands and minds.
The evidence for this is everywhere around us, but the writing and editing trade is particularly rife with black-and-white proof (in both senses of the word “proof”) of the failures of its practitioners. A plasterboard installer can conceal a hole anytime with a little drywall compound, but there is no whiting out a typographic error in a book that has gone to press. And studies have shown (or so the saying goes in the copyediting business) that on average even the best copy editors miss 10 percent of the grammatical and typographic errors in a piece—a depressingly large number. Such is the nature of the human eye: it simply can’t find everything it searches for.
The Lord likes to protect us from the hubris that can come with success, and that applies in publishing just as much as in any other human activity. For our own benefit, he offers plenty of humble pie while the editorial and typesetting process is ongoing, and even holds some in reserve for those who, when the job is done, want to pride themselves on having achieved perfection. (For an example, see “The Foulis Pursuit of Perfection” below.)
In light of this, it would be blasphemous for the New Century Edition team to expect that an NCE volume could be perfect. That doesn’t mean we slacken in our pursuit of perfection; it just helps us understand why it sometimes seems that the best we can ever do is to flee imperfection.
In this pursuit/flight, our readers are our last defense against error. “Typos” reported to us are gladly received and are corrected in second printings. For example, it was an alert reader who noticed that an NCE author had cited the second book of Romans—which doesn’t exist. Somehow this got past our checking system; and we do check every single Bible reference and cross-reference in every volume. This is no small job: in the first volume of Secrets of Heaven alone there were nearly four thousand section numbers and Bible verses, and in the indexes to that volume there were over ten thousand locator numbers, all of which had to be checked. Moreover, we have checklists to catch everything from grammatical errors to “Swedenborgianese,” those locutions much beloved by Swedenborgians but unintelligible to others. Our latest checklist runs to fourteen pages and has hundreds of items.
But in publishing, as in other fields, the point is not whether you achieve perfection. You may do so, but only briefly—with the next page or the next book the race resumes, and you are doomed to lose it, because you are human. The point is that you have to pursue perfection anyway, for its own sake. It’s part of that “seeking the kingdom of God” Jesus talks about in Matthew 6:33, a favorite passage of Swedenborg’s.
If you do seek perfection for its own sake, other benefits accrue without your directly seeking them. In particular, your books will be such that from the moment people hold them in their hands, and open them, and begin to read, they will say to themselves, “The people who made this book loved it.” The paper, the ink, the type, the design, and most of all, the care lavished on the content will speak of that love loudly and clearly. And people will listen to a book if they know it is loved.
The Foulis Pursuit of Perfection
Robert Foulis (1707–1776) and his brother Andrew Foulis (1712–1775) were printers in Glasgow from about 1740 until their respective deaths. Their editions of hundreds of biblical, classical, and modern works were celebrated for the high standards they achieved. Taking this praise as a challenge, on one occasion the Foulises attempted “to publish a work which should be a perfect specimen of typographical accuracy.”* The following is a description of the process and the outcome:
Every precaution was taken to secure the desired result. Six experienced proofreaders were employed, who devoted hours to the reading of each page; and after it was thought to be perfect, it was posted up in the hall of the university, with a notification that a reward of fifty pounds would be paid to any person who could discover an error. Each page was suffered to remain two weeks in the place where it had been posted, before the work was printed, and the printers thought that they had attained the object for which they had been striving. When the work was issued, it was discovered that several errors had been committed, one of which was in the first line of the first page.
*The account is that of William Keddie, ed., Cyclopedia of Literary and Scientific Anecdote (Glasgow: Richard Griffin, 1854), p. 191; reprinted in Harold Rabinowitz and Rob Kaplan, A Passion for Books (New York: Three Rivers, 1999), p. 163.