A Plague of Scanspellos

They’re not typos, they’s scanspellos — errors that come not from someone mistyping something and failing to check it, but from someone scanning something in, running a quick OCR and spellcheck, then thinking that’s enough work on that one and publishing the damn thing. And I’m not talking about people putting stuff up on the web, I’m talking about supposedly professionally produced books available through Amazon. And this plague of scanspellos is set to get a lot worse as ebooks gain in popularity.

It’s not an issue limited to ebooks. The old Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperbacks had their fair share of typos, for instance — enough to make me want to replace them with a higher quality edition if I ever wanted to re-read them, but never so many that it made me give up reading them to start with. I first read A Voyage to Arcturus in its Ballantine edition, and although the typos were mildly annoying, they never got in the way of my understanding — and in fact being bowled over by — the book. It was always obvious they were typos. The trouble with scanspellos (a horrible word for a horrible phenomenon) is, because they involve a careless run through a spellchecker, they’re that much less obvious. The first book that really got my readerly goat as far as scanspellos are concerned was, in fact, another edition of A Voyage to Arcturus, in this case one produced by a university press — Bison Press, who are associated with the University of Nebraska. In a supposedly “commemmorative” edition (that’s one “m” too many, they even managed to introduce an error on the cover), the text was so garbled I actually fired an email off to the publisher (and never got a reply of course). Although it was full of silly little obvious errors, including number 1’s for letter l’s (hardly an important error, but irritating enough to act as a constant distraction from pure reading), some of the words, and therefore the meaning, had actually been changed. At one point, for instance, the text said, “The short stranger turned and comforted the party”. Any reader new to Arcturus would read that and take it at face value, but I, having read the novel a fair few times and knowing that the very essence of the “short stranger”, Krag, is discomfort — he is a supernatural being who has another name in our world, and it is Pain — checked that sentence in another edition and found it was supposed to read “The short stranger turned and confronted the party” — an entirely different meaning.

I’ve recently been reading Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural, a bumper volume of Algernon Blackwood stories. This is from House of Stratus, a publisher who has issued a lot of Blackwood in affordable paperback form. A while ago I bought their edition of his novel, The Human Chord, and it was a well-produced paperback. I thought Tales would be up to the same standard. In fact it was scanspelloed to the hilt. “Her” constantly replaced “for”, “ox” replaced “or”, “axe” replaced “are”, “lie” replaced “he”, among many, many others. Worst of all was its constant replacement of long dashes with hyphens. This might sound like a minor annoyance on a par with number 1’s for letter l’s, but it was actually the thing that most interrupted my reading. There’s a constantly disruptive effect in reading a sentence like:

“The Club-it crossed his tortured mind for a second-was impossible.”

The worst thing was, once I’d been reading the book for a while, I found myself looking at hyphenated words I came across elsewhere, wondering if they were supposed to have a dash or a hyphen between them, and tentatively re-reading them each way before continuing.

Neither of these examples are of ebooks. I recently read Treasure Island on my Kindle, in the free edition offered by Amazon. That actually had very few scanspellos, but had plenty of examples of the other fault that irritates me about ebooks — poor design. I hate books that use html-style paragraphing (a double line-space between paragraphs rather than a single line break and an indent). The free edition of Treasure Island didn’t do that, fortunately, but quite frequently had line breaks within paragraphs, though aside from that — and the poor formatting of chapter headings — it was generally readable. But bad enough to persuade me to pay for a book I want to read in future.

None of this is because of the rise of ebooks, or of print-on-demand technology (the House of Stratus book was POD, the Bison Press wasn’t), but it is an effect of the ease with which old, often out-of-print, books can be brought into production nowadays. On the one hand, I applaud publishers for bringing hard-to-find works back into print once more — particularly the Algernon Blackwood novels and stories. But the very thing that makes it viable for them to do so is that they can put so little effort into it — just scan them, OCR & spellcheck them, and release them to the public without a proper (human) proofread. And the trouble is that once these cheap editions are out there, it makes it so much less likely that a proper publisher — one who will actually check what they publish — will bring out a better edition to replace it, one which will necessarily be more expensive, and so sell less.

In the meantime, I’ve discovered a better way of reading out-of-print books. I download them as PDFs from archive.org. Kindles are generally pretty bad for reading PDFs because they either shrink them too small to read in order to fit on the screen, or you have to constantly pan right and left to read them; but books of a certain age are just the right size to fit on a Kindle screen and remain readable. And they’ve got a good selection of Algernon Blackwoods at archive.org.

A novel is a sequence of words, one after the other — how do you improve on that?

I watched the video of Steve Jobs’ keynote speech demonstrating the new iPad when it came out and felt a bit underwhelmed. My main interest in the iPad was in the area of ebook readers — could the iPad do for books what the iPod did for music? By the looks of it, and despite the media buzz, I’d say the answer is no. But I wasn’t expecting that it would.

I’ve kept half an eye on ebook readers as the technology has developed, and have even a couple of times found myself on the verge of buying one. The main thing that stopped me each time is the fact that I just love books as physical objects too much. There are, nevertheless, things I like about the idea of having an ebook reader. The main one is that it would free me from having to have a physical copy of every book I read. I’d be quite happy to have most non-fiction books that I’ve read in digital form, for instance, so that, once I’ve read them, I can refer back to them, without their having to take up my rather limited shelf-space.

But the real issue for me is novels. Would I ever want to read a novel on an ebook reader? There are a few advantages I could see in it, but from Steve Jobs’ demo of the iPad, I can’t see that those advantages have been addressed. Jobs was obviously excited about the new iPad, and in particular about the ebook store aspect of it. But when it came to showing the results of buying an ebook, and addressing what you actually do with it once you’ve bought it, he seemed to hit something of blank, which was quickly passed over with a happy return to the ebook store, with its potential to sell oodles of a whole new form of digital product.

What about the most important thing (from the consumer’s, not the producer’s, point of view) — the reading experience? Books, for most people, are fundamentally different from music. The whole point about the iPod is that it lets you take your music with you and listen to it while you’re doing other stuff. Even audiobooks, Apple’s main brush with the literary world so far, are mainly of advantage in that you can listen to them while doing something else, like walking the dog, or doing the housework. Reading, however, is something you do as an entire activity all of itself. And I think there’s really very little in terms of bells & whistles you can add to it.

Then, today, I came across this video of Penguin’s ideas of how they’re going to transform their stock of books for use on the iPad. It all looks great, but the trouble is, these aren’t the sort of books I’m interested in. Yes, the iPad is great for reference books, because it can turn them into hyperlinked multimedia applications. But we know computers can do that, because they’re already doing it. On websites, and before that, on CD-ROMs. So there’s nothing really new there.

I have a few ideas — a set of minimum demands I’d like to be met before I’d buy an ebook reader.

First, and this I think is already in place anyway, is an ability to change the size and style of the text. But I’d also like to change the amount of whitespace, so you can have lines double-spaced, or line-and-a-half spaced (my favourite), and set your own margins, which makes things a lot easier to read. And you’d have to be able to save those as a style sheet and apply it to the text of any book you read. Perhaps have one for horror novels and one for classics, and so on.

Next, bookmarks. You’d have to have a bookmark for where you’re reading, obviously, but you’d also want to be able to place quick-flick bookmarks for places you want to refer back to. And I’m not just talking about reference books, here. If you’re reading something like War and Peace, with its vast cast of characters, you might want to create an index page of names, bookmark-linked to the places they first appear, just so you can keep track of who’s who (along with all their Russian diminutives). Also — and this is mostly for reference books — I’d want to be able to view the book split-screen, so I can have two sections open at once. For instance, to keep a diagram from one page up whilst it is being discussed, and so on.

Next, as an expansion of bookmarks, I’d want comments and annotations. I know things like the Kindle allow you to make comments, though I’ve never checked to see how easy that is. But what I like the sound of is opening up comments and annotations so they can be shared. So, you’d be able to put your own private annotations on the page (or as hidden pop-ups); but you should also be able to share your comments & annotations, for instance with other members of your book-club; and, you should be able to subscribe to (even pay for) annotations from third-parties — for instance, in the case of scholarly annotations to a classic book. So, you could buy S T Joshi’s annotations to Lovecraft, as an example. Or, you could (if you really wanted to go in-depth), buy both the Penguin and the Oxford Classics annotations for some classic novel you’re reading, and have them both appear linked to the one text. (I have to say here that I love annotations to books. I can’t resist a book with annotations.)

The thing is, though, when it comes down to it, the experience of reading a book is irreplaceable by any activity other than reading the book — following it on, word by word, and creating that thing in your head which is the result of having read a novel. The whole point of that experience is just how unadorned it is. A nice edition, a nice typeface, some informative annotations, perhaps some illustrations, are all essential, but when it comes down to it, the reading of a book is something that happens deep within your head. And I can’t think of anything that any technology could do to improve on, or even alter, that. It’s brainware, not software, not hardware — brainware alone.

And this may the point — reading is a creative act, with the book as the script and you, the reader, as the performer. What you do with the book as you read it is personal, perhaps a bit experimental, and probably incommunicable. And it may be the luddite-Romantic in me — though I love technology and what it can do well, just like I love my iMac — but I think it’s one the few areas no technology will ever improve. It’s a human thing, a truly human thing, like dreaming, like hoping, like wishing, and all those other (mostly useless) things we humans do which will never be digitised.

So, while I’d love for Apple to have success after success, there’s a part of me sort of hoping it won’t happen in this case, just so the march of digital progress might finally find the point where old-style entertainment digs in its trenches and holds the front-line. If it’s going to happen anywhere, it’s going to be in the most low-tech, do-it-yourself area. And I think that area may be reading novels.