Monday, April 17, 2017

Two extremes

Isaac Asimov
For some people, once something is written, it is finished. There is no such thing as a second draft, a revision of an awkward sentence or even a quick read to check spelling and grammar. Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov was famous for this. He wrote as many books as he did, on a variety of subjects other than science fiction, because he could write quickly, but also because he supposedly didn't go back over his work. That's what editors were for.

At the other extreme are those who hesitate to say that anything they write is ever finished. It is for such people that the postscript at the end of letters was invented. Such writers can take years to finish a book, even after they've written the last chapter. They can always find something that can be improved.

I am somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. As a blogger, I tend to quickly forget what I wrote about last week, yet I always have in mind those topics I'm considering for the week ahead. Even so I am often torn by things I have written, especially if I go back and reread them months or years later. There are things I would love to add or take out or simply rewrite in clearer language. And then there are all those typos, so easy to miss when writing is fresh but which seem to jump off the page or the screen months later. Last week, for example, I reread a post from a couple of weeks ago and found I had written two when I meant too. In this case, I actually went back and made the correction. Now it's as if it were correct all along.

Walt Whitman
This made me wonder if the poet Walt Whitman would have thrived in the digital age, or would the ease of correction driven him to the nuthouse? Whitman's Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, yet he never considered it finished. He was continually thinking of better ways to phrase the lines of his poetry, and each edition of his book published during his lifetime was different than the one before.

But it gets worse. An article in the winter edition of Fine Books & Collections says Whitman stood behind the printer during the first printing of Leaves of Grass and directed changes throughout the printing of the 795 copies in that edition. "As a result, it is possible that each of the 184 known surviving copies is unique," writes Erin Blakemore. A team of scholars is at work comparing original copies of Whitman's work to determine what differences they can find.

All this makes it impossible to know which is the real Leaves of Grass. Which version should be the one reprinted for today's readers, the last one Whitman approved or one of the originals? Who should decide which is best?

At least with Isaac Asimov there will never be that problem.

No comments:

Post a Comment