by Anura Guruge
Given that I have been writing, for money, since the early 1980s, I am acutely aware how easy it is to slip up and get things wrong. Now after 7 published books, well over 350 published articles (including White Papers), a number of books with my name on the cover as the editor and multiple Web sites/BLOGs, I, more so than ever, appreciate that I flirt with fallibility on daily basis. Then, we have that perspicacious adage about ‘people who live in glass houses should not throw stones.’ Consequently I am venturing into this with utmost trepidation and more humility than might be readily available.
So, I want to first start by pointing out the errors in my first papal book. You can find the list HERE.
<< Web page with the errors I am currently flagging. >>
Over the last four years or so when I have been researching papal history with vigor, I have found innumerable, demonstrable errors (and omissions) in books and Web sites dealing with popes, conclaves and cardinals. Given the volume of material involved and the complexity (and breadth) of the matter covered some of this is inevitable.
Errors in Web sites do not bother me much. They can, and are corrected. I find typos on my BLOGs with sickening regularity. But, then again I tell people openly (including those that hire me for professional writing) that my middle name is ‘typo.’ So just this weekend, I noticed that I had missed a ‘1’ in ‘194!’ So I had said that: ‘Following his last consistory in 2003 there were 135 electors within a College of 94 (plus one in pectore [i.e., name not announced])!’ Hopefully most readers, and this page has been viewed by ~200 folks in the last two months, realized that I was having finger problems. I am SORRY.
I also understand that sometimes you accidentally omit a word that makes what you are saying incorrect — though grammatically your sentence is still valid. So often, editors, who are rarely subject matter experts, never realize that you have goofed. I did that on another BLOG entry. I first said: ‘One has to go back to 1689 to find a pope who was older at the time of election, that being Alexander VIII who was 79.’ I meant to also add ‘older than 78 at the time of the election.’ Without the ’78,’ my statement was WRONG. Sorry. In addition to the current pope, Benedict XVI, there were two other popes elected in their 78th year. I wanted to go BEYOND 78. But I initially screwed up.
So, I know how easy it is to screw up.
I also fully appreciate what it is like to ‘break into a cold sweat.‘ It is a scary feeling. Happened to me once. I realized that I had got some prices wrong in a monthly column I used to write for a leading computer networking newspaper. I had overlooked some documentation. When I discovered that I had erred, I realized, though it was very late at night, in the middle of winter in New Hampshire, that I was suddenly sweating. I was lucky. I managed to get it changed before the column was printed.
Errors in books, particularly if these books are considered to be ‘authoritative,’ are a problem. There is gravitas (or similar) in a printed book. People tend to believe that if they see it in a book, it has to be right. But there is no magic to make that so. So there are errors in books and magazines. But here is the real problem and I have been at the end of this so many times. People claim that YOU wrong because they saw something to the contrary in a book or magazine. (In the mid-1990s I actually managed, with the help of IBM, to get an Internet-related monthly magazine terminated because I go so sick of people arguing with me that I was wrong because they had read a different opinion in that magazine.)
I have tried very had to keep my mouth shut about the errors that I find in papal-related matter. In the case of Web sites I have had nothing but joy in terms of getting things fixed. THANK YOU. I communicate, via email, with a number of Web site authors/owners and point out ‘discrepancies’ that I discover. Send an email just a few minutes ago related to the number of cardinals created by John Paul II.
The problems with books is that it is not that easy to fix errors in them. Yes, with today’s ‘print-on-demand’ (PoD) technology you can deliver new editions fairly easily and without undue costs. But most publishers do not, as yet, exploit PoD.
Authors could have companion Web sites with an errata section. That would be good. But that doesn’t happen either.
Way back in the 1970s there was a renowned computer expert called Donald Knuth who wrote a multi-volume book on computer algorithms. As with papal history this was complicated enough to ensure that there would inevitably be some errors. Prof. Knuth, in his preface, offered two pounds sterling (i.e., UK pounds) to each person who was the first to notify him of an error. Then in the next edition he fixed those errors. I was lucky enough to get one of those cheques from Prof. Knuth c. 1973.
So, that is my justification. I am not trying to be a smart Alec or a gadfly. I know better than that. I also realize that I now have yet another TARGET painted on a hitherto spared part of my anatomy. So now I will have authors gunning for me. C’est la vie. I am sorry I have to do this. But somebody has to and I am now old enough to give it a try.
Many thanks. All the best.
Grace, and may peace be with you.