Unseen Allies

Years ago, I read an interview with John Updike in which he talked about the joy of receiving a fresh box of his new books. He smelled them. He held them in his hands, admiring their covers, turning them gently so they’d catch the light like a jewel. He opened one, pleased with the publisher’s choice of typeface, so graceful, so elegant. And then, invariably, within the first few minutes of browsing, he’d come across a typo, and his joy was dashed.

I now have my own box, as of yesterday morning. And I have done exactly those same things. But I cannot yet bring myself to open one, for fear of my own glaring error.

My phobias, though, are not the point of today’s message. Today’s message is about how much better the book is because someone else made it that way. I spent much of the summer and fall of 2015 exchanging documents with the Press’s stellar Renaldo Migaldi, Senior Manuscript Editor. Renaldo read every single one of the 110,000 words in the manuscript, already a remarkable dedication; you and I as civilians almost certainly don’t read every single word of the things we read—we gloss, we slide, we skim. Renaldo did not. He dug in, locating every hitch and hiccup along the way. Of which there were a stunning number.

Now, remember, this is the University of Chicago Press, the curators of the Chicago Manual of Style. One does not argue with the very people who hold the sacramental chalice. So I, rightly and wisely, conceded nearly every point, and the book is vastly better for it. I am forever grateful to Renaldo for making the PhDictionary a far, far better work than it had started out to be.

And yet… this book is written in a colloquial, casual voice. I wanted it to be fun to read. And so the few tangles that Renaldo and I found ourselves in was due to my use of some construction that just sounded like folks talking. And, of course, it WAS technically incorrect, but I managed to hang onto a few of them where I thought they were most crucial to the spirit of a story.

Language is musical. If you play some selected notes off the beat, it humanizes the sound, gives it intention and specificity. If you play every note off the beat, you’re just inept. Renaldo brought this manuscript into sharp time, against which my most personal hesitations or surges could be heard more clearly.

Even this most internal of projects—a sole author communicating my own thinking—is a team endeavor. There are at least four people I can name at the Press whose attention to this book has brought it alive; there are a dozen early readers and reviewers who simultaneously encouraged and nudged. As Elizabeth Warren rightly says, none of us build it on our own.