The 5 Boroughs of Brooklyn and the Need for Respectful Copyediting

cornell box

We know that books are under-edited. Expensive volumes will be full of careless typos and misinformation. Sometimes you need to re-read a mystifying passage several times before you realize it isn’t a conceptual subtlety you are too dense to grasp, but something that should have been spelled right, worded properly, or fact-checked.

I thought of this today while reading a new installment of my favorite blog about movies, Curnblog. A regular writer for the blog, who is identified as teaching in a college in Maryland, wrote the following about the artist of boxed assemblages Joseph Cornell: “The reclusive Cornell, who spent most of his life around his home in upstate New York . . . .”

The part of New York that Cornell lived in is Queens. For the benefit of my foreign readership and anyone in the U.S. who doesn’t know New York State geography, let me point out that Queens is part of New York City, east of Manhattan, and New York City is the downstatest part of New York State. In fact, the term Upstate New York is used primarily to denote the parts of New York State that are not New York City and a few adjacent counties.

All of this put me in mind of a book I’ve been reading, a biography of the novelist and short-story writer Bernard Malamud. Malamud was at one time one of my favorite writers, and the book compiles a huge amount of detail about his life and work. It’s a lavishly printed hardcover, published in 2007 by Oxford University Press, and it is atrociously un-edited.

A typical error is a reference to the “National Council of Teachers for English,” whose thousands of members would call it the National Council of Teachers of English. But my favorite mistake is “the five boroughs of Brooklyn.” I suppose I shouldn’t take it for granted that everyone knows it is New York City that consists of five boroughs and that Brooklyn doesn’t have any (except for itself).

The writer of this howler—that is, the biographer of Malamud—has the excuse that he is British. For Oxford University Press, there is no excuse.



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