On the spectrum of skills, proofreading lies somewhere between waitressing and stacking firewood. It is the ideal occupation for writers waiting for the large contract on their first book or for the recent graduate, waiting for life to start. It is also ideal for someone who is deeply conflicted, who imagines herself in a competition for World's Oldest Ingénue, or Longest Spinning of Wheels -- in my case, 23 years and counting. As long as I am a proofreader, my "real life," the one my vertiginous ambitions keep trying to lure me into, cannot begin. You wouldn't know it from the outside, but proofreading has a deeply Hitchcockian aspect: the dark and creaking house into which, in guileless youth, the temporary worker may skip, only to be found decades later graying and all but lifeless, writerly aspirations ash about her feet. This is why I start to redden immediately upon declining an invitation due to a deadline: I know what's coming next. "Oh, how nice. What are you writing?" When I have to explain that I am instead doing the literary equivalent of wiping the tables at Burger King, I wonder if indeed I am also a writer, as I purport, or really like the fellow I once knew who insisted he was an artist. Talentless as well as legally blind, he made paintings that were doomed to fail. Who was he kidding? Come to think of it, he was a proofreader too.
I have written three books, but I have been paid to read hundreds. They have flowed past me like a river; to attempt to remember individual books is to try to name those million drops of water. Some of them were never meant to be remembered, but rather to run the proofreading bill up: cookbooks and makeup books, a book about new techniques in plastic surgery. I do, however, still vividly remember from 10 years ago a book called "The Song of the Dodo," a frighteningly eloquent account of island biology, and how rapacious development is creating in effect a myriad of land islands, where extinctions occur rapidly. Proofreading is a school of haphazard erudition.
A million little things: That's what proofreading a book amounts to. Improper word breaks (dri-veway). End of line stacks, also called ladders, as when three sequential lines end with the word "the" or hyphens. "The word 'the'" sometimes rendered that way, and sometimes as "the word the" in the same book. Misspellings. Britishisms. Redundancies, or the kind of literary flatulence that makes you write a terse query in the margin that you know will be ignored, especially if the author is an "author" with a lot of "style." You don't leave it saying "Printed in the Untied States of America," in the small type on the copyright page, even if you want to. Anachronisms (a scientific concept first named in 1933 turning up in the dialogue in a novel about Mary Magdalene), and the way the protagonist's mother is described as "blond" in the first third of the book and then becomes "raven-haired" in the rest. It doesn't matter what you think of all this. You are being paid to shut up and sweep.
I began as a very part-time proofreader at Time magazine. One day a week I sat in a cubicle, intoning to my partner the words of every article in the weekly, in proofspeak: "In order to accommodate double double the new recruits, comma open sing quo 'We have had to build a new base,' comma end sing quo said cap General cap Stone." I got star treatment, for a peon that is; if we worked into the dinner hour, a little envelope was delivered with $12 cash in it. I would only allow myself to spend $6 of it on takeout Japanese noodles so the other half could go into my wallet. If we worked past a certain hour at night, we received a voucher for a ride home in a Lincoln Town Car; if it was not actually too late, we'd take the subway home and keep the voucher for when it really counted, Saturday after a club closed and it was the drunken middle of the night. Incredibly, we received full health insurance even if we worked one day a week, and thus I could embark on the partial repair of my psyche by a qualified, and expensive, mental health professional. When Time laid me off, the union got me a check for $1,000, the exact amount of the motorbike I wanted to buy. I had also found, from reading the Time Inc. in-house newsletter and sending a note by interoffice mail, a husband there. Given that he, too, was a proofreader -- at Sports Illustrated -- perhaps our son will grow up to also gain so much, and so little, from his work as a nit-picker of words.
It is really quite cushy to be paid to read books, even if house painters, house cleaners and, naturally, your therapist are all paid twice to 10 times what you are. It feels almost illicit to be paid to read. But only when the book is good. If it is bad -- I am thinking here of a detective novel in which the main character was a dinosaur who wore clothes and could hide his tail when he was on the job -- it is bloody torture. I add more to the final bill when a book is bad, and still feel taken.
What do I know? I am faceless. But I love catching those little inconsistencies, love putting the point of my freshly sharpened red pencil on top of a comma that needs to be a semicolon, and inscribing the delete symbol, like the letter "S" with a flourish, that will herald the disappearance of anything it touches. This I do with care and precision, two qualities I rarely exemplify in any other part of my life, and here is where proofreading allows me to better myself. I become someone who gets things done. Someone with good handwriting. Someone who pays attention, with great focus, and lets nothing get by her.
At times I like being this person far better than I like being the one I am the rest of the hours, which are often messy beyond belief. To write is to sign up for a life of despair; to proofread is to sign up for a life with no hope of glory, but no chance of despair. It is only when you think you might enjoy some despair, not to mention glory, every once in a while that problems arise. I start to feel like a loser even as I welcome proofreading's tender embrace. It offers the infinite sweetness of a life simplified, well contained between the turning of the first bright white blank page and the last one on which "A Note About the Type" has been set with sober care.
That place becomes almost physical, a superior place to hide being naturally three-dimensional. Something about staring this intently at these small black shapes etched on white causes them to begin to construct whole buildings about you while you sit. They have a specific light, as if you were seeing them in a dream, which makes them realer than real. Whatever happens inside them happens to you. For example, there are a whole lot of books published each month that are about people who face life-threatening illnesses. These people make me envy them, in their dreamlike houses. In the last days of their lives, nothing is expected. A son or daughter is home to care for them. They triumph in simple matters: eating dinner, walking into the kitchen. Their lives read to me as appealing because they dont have anything more time-consuming to do than try to smile as they take their morning tea with a long line of pills. In print, it seems as if they are on vacation from life. And that is what sitting with a stack of galley pages in your lap is, a vacation from life.
An unlikely wedge, proofreading; it so cleanly separates me into two beings. When Im on a proofreading job, with a two-week deadline, I long for the chance to be writing, because immortal ideas occur to me just as Im reading the end of a line. When I get the chance to write again, galleys and invoice safely entrusted to Federal Express, I sit in front of the paper like a lump.
The truth is that while I have been earning no better than the grocery money now for a couple of decades (starting at $7 an hour, raised a year and a half later to $9, then $10; now it's $21, and makes me like the geezer who's been around so long she remembers when by golly a loaf of bread cost 15 cents), I have successfully evaded risks I might have taken in writing many things of my own. Even now, coming up the stairs to make myself sit down and work, my eyes fell on the latest package from Random House: a comic novel about dogs, I believe. I felt it reach out with its allurement: Come, sit on the bed, with the reading light over your shoulder and Webster's 11th holding up the stack of fresh pages. Get lost in my world of hidden errors for a few hours. Start something, then actually finish.
How strange to welcome spending 19 hours intently combing the memoir of a fantasy football fetishist (which at least performed the service of alerting me to the impressive fact that something called fantasy football exists at all). How strange to almost crave -- and crave more intensely the more I know I ought to be doing something with a touch more potential for gain -- settling down with a biography of the latest Irish tenor. Suddenly one day not long ago I found myself driving pell-mell to a hospital in another town with specialists who might, just might, save the life of someone who was like a daughter to me. I sat that night in the motel room where I awaited news of her tests. In front of me lay the proofreading job that had first seemed an absurd affront: The love of my life was dying and I knew it, and this one book out of the year's 10,000, which could change nothing of consequence, still had to be read by tomorrow? But then it transformed itself, while I kept trying to have the tears fall on the formica desk and not on its paper. I retreated into the world of further/farther, that/which, spelling out numbers under 100 and large round numbers above 100. My heart was not being ripped apart as long as I held my pencil tight and kept my eye on the page, the word, the letter following letter. Everything would be fixed in the next pass.
It is too simple, surely, this notion of the perfectible world, yet one unsatisfactorily made of nothing but paper. I wonder if I have been wasting my time, until another call comes with the offer of a first novel that needs to be cold-read (I do not even need to bother with the manuscript on this one). Sure, I'd love to. Another $320. Another twinge of conscience. Another 14 days before I can resume my life in the big, bad world, in which I am not dying, and usually, not writing either.