For about five years, beginning in 1995, I worked on the copy desk at the Village Voice. Aiding me in the battle against error were Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the fourteenth edition of the Chicago Manual of Style, published in 1993, and a samizdat-looking document containing the house style rules and bearing the enigmatic title "Small Craft Warnings." At any given moment one or all of these vade mecums lay open on my desk; the answer for anything could be found therein.
It was Chicago that I consulted the most. Myriad hyphenation issues could be resolved by consulting table 6.1, "Spelling Guide for Compound Words and Words with Prefixes and Suffixes," which included the plaintive question "Was it ever-eager Bill?"(The hyphen prevents misreading.) The second most visited section was chapter 7, "Names and Terms," with its clear-cut calls on when to uppercase ("oriental culture but an Oriental").
Chicago's examples could be recondite or mischievously witty or of a weirdly resonant blandness. You could be boning up on the proper use of brackets (section 5.129) and be hit with quotes like this:
During a prolonged visit to Australia, Glueck and an assistant (James Green, who was later to make his own study of a flightless bird [the kiwi] in New Zealand) spent several difficult months observing the survival behavior of cassowaries and emus.
You'd feel an urge to procrastinate, to follow these intrepid antipodean emu watchers, but alas: The sadistic authors of the fourteenth knew that less is more.
Where did these fragments come from? What did they mean? Sometimes there would be a message just for me. On late nights while I waited for proofs to materialize, I would think of the poem disguised as 5.136, which asks the reader to "consider the range of expressiveness achieved by the following changes in punctuation":
Though I never read the book cover to cover, the Chicago Manual of Style took up a lot of brain space during my copyediting years. Section headings suggested good titles for poems or chapters: "Mistaken Junction" (5.63), the vertiginous "Words Used as Words" (6.76). Ostensibly a reference work, it was really a form of secret potent literature, offering some of the challenges and unconventional pleasures of the sort of doorstop-shaped fiction I was consuming back then anyway.
At 933 pages, the fourteenth was comparable in size to the heralded omnium-gatherums of its era (1996's Infinite Jest, 1997's Mason & Dixon and Underworld). For sheer head-scratching postmodern tricksterism, though, Messrs. Wallace, Pynchon, and DeLillo had nothing on the collaborative deadpan master jam that was the fourteenth. Infinite Jest's reams of endnotes were distinctive but hardly as radical as Chicago's editorial comments for a text that was essentially invisible. "Millicent Cliff was Norton Westermont's first cousin, although to the very last she denied it," 15.47 tells us—but who was Norton Westermont? In this sense, much of Chicago reads like Pale Fire without the poem. On the very next page, 15.51's directions on how to style acknowledgments delivers both a name right out of Pynchonland and a DeLillo-esque consortium: "The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Dr. Oscar J. Blunk of the National Cyanide Laboratory in the preparation of this chapter."
The story that the fourteenth edition tells, underneath its scaffolding of instructions, is at once clear and murky. The tone morphs from page to page, a mixture of low humor and highbrow allusion. The effect is unsettling, as genuine scholarly works (Virgil Thomson's "Cage and the Collage of Noises," chapter 8 in American Music Since 1910) sit alongside bogus, anything-for-a-laugh ones (Irma Tweeksbury's If Only We Had Known! Confessions of a Regretter). The blitheness is disorienting. If the manual's authors seem to be having a lark, can their instructions be taken seriously?
Beginning in chapter 5 ("Punctuation"), the authors supply numerous examples to illustrate almost every rule, and the reader strives to form links between the discrete sentences, as in the hysterical 5.106 ("Sudden Breaks and Abrupt Changes"):
"Will he—can he—obtain the necessary signatures?" Mills said pointedly.
The Platonic world of the static and the Hegelian world of process—how great the contrast!
It's like glimpsing the surviving title cards for some legendary ruined silent movie. The non sequiturs cluster into miniature Ashbery poems (5.70: "One committee member may be from Ohio, another from Pennsylvania, and a third from West Virginia. / Ronald adored her and she him"), and even the terser lists take on a shimmering pillow-book feel, as in this passage from 7.29, "Commonly Accepted Epithets":
the Great Emancipator
the Wizard of Menlo Park
the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table
Only connect: As I clocked—over months, years—the recurrence of certain names, hints of plot tantalized. There was the elliptical story of the powerful Porkola clan, with their Toronto roots (5.65), diplomatic legacy (5.96), and interest in Finnish design (15.151). Meanwhile, I learned that "Babs had gone to Naples with Guido, and when Baxter found out about it he flew into a rage" in 5.35; in 5.41, the free-spirited Babs "was seen entering the Villa Sorrento, where Tom was staying."
Another story line originates at 5.40, as the mysterious Morgenstern makes his debut: "Morgenstern, in a manner that surprised us all, escorted the reporter to the door." What did the reporter want? Who is "us"? Chicago isn't saying. Ten pages later, in a section on the handling of quotation marks (5.71), someone named Spivekovski "reported that Morgenstern was not only 'indisposed' but also 'in a bad temper.'" And then comes the corker, 5.74, as two plot strands intersect: "When Babs asked Morgenstern to drive her to the piazza, his reply was, 'Ah my dear, if only I had the time!'" His character is efficiently drawn, each sentence bringing with it some startling detail.
I am no longer on the copy desk, but I've been revisiting the fourteenth edition because the latest Chicago Manual of Style, the sixteenth since 1906, has just been published; I'm curious to see what's changed. (I should mention that I never used the fifteenth, published in 2003, so the difference in versions is particularly dramatic for me.) This iteration has a jacket the calming shade of a robin's egg or one of those old Mac screens, and you can imagine a weary copy editor cooling her tired brow against it. It has about a hundred more pages than the fourteenth and a crisper font. There are diverting minitreatises, such as the one on American Sign Language, detailing the specialized symbols and subscripts used for transcription. And Bryan A. Garner effectively carves out a novella within the larger structure: just over one hundred pages on "Grammar and Usage," including a glossary of problematic words ("pore. To pore over something written is to read it intently. Some writers mistakenly substitute pour").
The truth is, I'll never pore over the sixteenth the way I did the fourteenth, a book years in the reading. Still, it's fun to see that some characters from that previous edition (Farnsworth, the excitable Henrietta) make cameos. That hussy Babs is awol here, as far as I can tell, and ever-eager Bill no longer graces the hyphenation table. Gone, too, are the jokey citations (Jack Plainreader's The Month I Nodded and Plodded Through "Finnegans Wake"), though plenty of sentences offer context-free thrills, like 7.48's "We could not believe the headline: POLAR ICE CAP RETURNS."
I was hoping for clear guidance on the styling of websites, which began to take off during my copyediting tenure, sowing confusion; much is clarified, though I find some nits to pick. Italicizing blog titles (8.187) seems wrong, especially for a blog associated with a newspaper; one example Chicago gives is Eric Asimov's wine blog for the New York Times, rendered here as The Pour. (My take: A blog should be initial cap, roman, no quote marks, like the title of a newspaper column. See 14.205.) And I don't think "Wikipedia" should be italicized (8.186); it's "analogous" to an encyclopedia, but departs so profoundly from the traditional kind that the "analogous" argument falls flat.
Wikipedia is a Web-only project still haunted by the ghost of paper; what's the status of this hefty new Chicago? The introduction states it's "the first edition to be prepared and published simultaneously in print and online." Clearly, this makes sense; one envisions copy editors everywhere with no reference books at hand, simply scooting onto Firefox to check rules and spellings. How quaint, by comparison, this statement from the manual of seventeen years ago: "A great many, perhaps a preponderance, of manuscripts are now prepared by computerized word processing."
Appendix A of the sixteenth is a primer on metadata ("data about data"), XML ("extensible markup language"), electronic workflow, and other elements of the brave new world of document preparation. There's a brief discussion of print technologies, ending with the gathering of signatures into a book—specifically, a technique called limp binding. You can read that phrase as an unconscious comment on the times: Why print and bind anything—even The Chicago Manual of Style?
It's a bit of a letdown compared with chapter 19 of the fourteenth edition, which patiently shows how a publication—say, the one in your hand—is made. It's a dizzying deconstruction that luxuriates in the specialized language of the trade: blind stamping and saddle wiring, couch rolls and deckle straps. It actually tells you how paper is made, presenting a diagram of the pulp-processing Fourdrinier machine, with its "dandy roll" and "endless belt of wool felt." It seemed ornamental, all those years ago, but now this section scans as strangely empowering. As more and more of everything moves online, knowing the rudiments of bookmaking feels naively vital—it's as though in the wake of some crippling apocalypse, everything you need to restart civilization can be found between these covers.
Ed Park is the author of the novel Personal Days.