In praise of typos  March 07, 2011   «  »

I was appalled by typos for all of my youth. In my salad days, it seemed to me that they represented weakness of mind, lack of attention to detail, and intellectual disregard. Now that many years have passed and with them my brittle perfectionism, I find myself unexpectedly excising words and randomly misspelling things. Lo and behold, it seems that my opinion with regard to typos has changed, especially if I am considering my own. (Vanity, thy name is cognitive dissonance.)

These days I attribute these mistakes to evolutionary thought-based errors most probably caused by some revision that occurred quickly after another revision. That's right: they're reasoned—you could almost say that they're planned. Their presence indicates a consuming passion for IDEAS and an unwitting statement against slavish attention to prescriptive grammar and formalized language. Yes! They're not mistakes, they're the wabi-sabi that arises from the language vessel in use!

This attitude is so much better. Isn't the world much more of a clean, well-lighted place if we can imagine that people everywhere are writing, rewriting, thinking then rethinking, considering then reconsidering ideas? Their minds whirring on ahead, their fingers unable to keep up.

Our obsession with the misplaced letter doesn't really translate to verbal conversation. Well, it sort of does in our every day slips, stutters, and misstatements. But when this happens we generally loop back and self-correct. Or we plow on since our listeners don't always notice or care. We co-create a conversational social contract in which we accept that concept trumps technique: the imperfect in day to day conversation is perfectly acceptable. This unwritten agreement extends even to stammering, although that language quirk is not really indicative of a mental typo, it's more indicative of a cognitively sticky keyboard, and we're happy to let that slide, too.

It is true, that amazing, conversational idea-cathedral builders do exist. David Foster Wallace springs to mind as a person who spoke in full and lush paragraphs appointed with precise wording and exacting mental punctuation. I admire these verbal artists for their rare and beautiful linguistic facility.

But the rest of us are left to muddle through, often caught off-guard, our attention momentarily focused on some important but out-of-the-way cognitive side street; minds way ahead of our digits, catching distant sounds of far off ideological sirens. Mortals attempting to think immortal thoughts.

It's funny how you can run across something that entirely changes your thoughts about an idea. Listening to DFW speak on a podcast did that for me. I listened in awe as he extemporaneously architected words into mental structures building foundations and linking cross-beams, one idea placed seamlessly on top of another until an entire ideological construction was raised effortlessly into mid-air.

Carla Casilli Talk to me at cmcasilli at gmail dot com.