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True to Type

Confessions of a copyediting columnist.

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I'm a worrywart big-time all the time, a nervous type, hard-wired to expect the worst. I can't help it. So I couldn't help thinking it made sense: me, without a shred of newspaper experience or production know-how, joining the Flyer staff on the part-time low end when that staff was a handful. This was early on in the paper's 15-year history, which makes it -- what -- 1991? I don't know. It's kind of a blur.

Editorial at the time was in the hands of Tim Sampson and two to three more staff writers, tops. The art department, no question about it, was a full-time grand total of one: Cory Dugan, who was the paper's art department (and its art critic, now the CA's), along with a sideman, me, who worked part-time doing paste-up when I wasn't proofreading and/or copyediting and/or ruining my eyesight and taxing my nervous system. (Forget the niceties: Those jobs and medical conditions can be and in this case are interchangeable, par for the course, part and parcel, etc.)

Or I was proofreading at the same time I was doing paste-up. Or I was sizing black-and-white glossies that I was then running off to have turned into something called PMTs. Or checking corrections to the "hard copy" against what the paper's two typesetters had turned into "film." Or, with an Exacto knife, slicing that "film" and not my fingertips into what looked like newspaper columns, classified listings, ads, what have you, whatever. (A Band-Aid when that Exacto took a turn for the worse? Grab some masking tape.)

These Dark Age duties of mine were all performed with an afternoon deadline in mind, my worried mind. The paper's printing company, somewhere in Mississippi, ruled. The Flyer was 40-something pages, give or take a good or bad week in ad sales, small potatoes measured against its size and scope today. There were no computers except to serve as word processors. But you could smoke at your desk, which helped to keep you pinned to your desk. Lunch on press day every Tuesday? Forget it. Light up to kill your appetite. Coffee: a constant companion. And never mind that pain in the neck. Missed typos in the finished product? Live with it. Big boo-boos un-fact-checked for the city to see? Ditto. It's Tuesday night. The paper's "gone." Have a beer. No, make that a Jack straight, can the Coke. Tomorrow's another day ...

... at the bookstore, where I was also working part-time. So it maybe seemed like a good idea for Tim to ask if I wanted to handle a book column for the Flyer. He said it made sense: me with a ready access to the latest titles, me with a liberal-arts background, and me with maybe a brain to give it a shot. Plus, he said I'd get paid to do it.

There's been an upside over the years: good to great books, hardly ever all-out trash; a chance to talk in person or by phone to writers I would have never otherwise met; a chance to put words to a test -- an author's, my own. There's been this downside too: time -- the time it takes to read, write.

And there's been this one FAQ from friends and strangers alike: How do you choose the books to write about? My answer in the form of further FAQs: Is it an author doing a booksigning in town? Is it a title of local concern? Is it a name author or a newsworthy topic? Is it doable by deadline? Is it not being done by anybody else? And, on a subjective note, is it of any interest to me and maybe other readers out there? (Leave aside the added question for the ages: Is any of this book coverage worth your reading it, or is it more fit for the bottom of a birdcage?)

And so, on the subject of books, authors, and current events, what's worth your attention now is The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile: Conversations with Arundhati Roy, new this month and newsworthy. Roy's bones to pick: globalization, privatization, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, which makes these interviews with David Barsamian not only down my alley but this week "doable," if only to give the book a brief positive mention. Kudos to South End Press for making it available in paperback for 16 bucks.

And on the subject of proofing and copyediting, production snafus and deadlines unmet, the Flyer and 15 years, this update: I've now got a search engine that can misspell names too. I've got more typos to go with more pages. But I can live with it. I can take comfort in that song by the band the Fall. At 50, finally, I'm "totally wired."

E-mail: gill@memphisflyer.com

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