16 January, 2013

Joshua's Key
H. Brading

It is an unusual step for me to take, but i am starting to write a review of this book before i have finished reading it. I want to be clear about my feelings and response to it as i go, rather than simply once i am done, perhaps because Heather is someone local, and i want to do a good and fair job.  Once i have finished the book ~ and finish it i will ~ i shall, as usual, write a review, and i will post it here.  Now, though, you are reading a review based on a partial reading.
Currently i am quite frustrated by Joshua's Key, and am not grabbing it to read it as often as i would like to be (admittedly, i do have four other books i am also reading at the moment, so that might have something to do with it), because it is not quite as pleasurable as it ought to be. The problem is not with the story, nor with the characters, nor with Brading's style. It is, rather, simply with the presentation of those things. There is a significant number of significant mistakes in the typesetting; mistakes which ought to have been caught during the copy-editing process. I am, i freely admit, a pedant with regard to the English language, its grammar, and its usage. And my pedantry has been continually outraged.
The errors are of several sorts, but they seem to resolve in one direction, which i find rather interesting. I shall discuss some of the errors to begin with, and then spend a little time thinking about why they have occurred, and how important they are.
First, and hugely common throughout today's writing, so by no means is Brading alone in making these, are mistakes with commas. This little mark is one of the most difficult things for many writers to control; it is important mostly as a guide to understanding in silent reading (the importance of which i develop later) as in speech the tone of the voice, changes in that tone, and pauses are used to convey meaning. When we read print we do not have the sound of the author's voice to guide us, so the comma is used to do the same thing for us: It tells us when to pause slightly, when a phrase is dependent on another, when a phrase is not essential for the meaning of the sentence ~ all vital tasks, all of which can only be done in print by the correct use of the comma. There are conventions which writers should follow in order to make clear just how they would read their writing, what, in other words, they mean. These conventions ~ some call them rules, but that is rather stronger than warranted ~ can be found in many places, so i don't propose to list them here; they are, however, worth pursuing.
A second common mistake, both in Joshua's Key and in a surprising amount of modern writing, is the misuse of the apostrophe. Funnily enough, the apostrophe looks like a comma moved to the top of the line, and its use is misunderstood ~ or possibly ignored ~ nearly as frequently. It is used for two purposes, which are the indication of one or more missing letters and the indication of possession (which may derive from the missing letters usage). All too often it is used, incorrectly, for emphasis, or because the writer thinks a plural looks wrong without it. I am happy to report that i have not yet noticed in Joshua's Key the single most common misuse of the apostrophe: Using “it's” to indicate the possessive impersonal pronoun, which is correctly spelled “its” (“it's” can only mean “it is”).
The third error or series of errors i have found while reading is the blurring of sentences which ought to be separate, so that transitions are not made smoothly or effectively. Instead, i find myself confused about who is doing the action, because the change in subject has not been clarified with a change of sentence. Sentences, at least in writing (casual speech is different), are designed to make the meaning clearer, just as commas and other marks of punctuation are. The author knows exactly what he plans to convey; structure is used conventionally to make that conveyance easier.
As i mentioned above, i find that the mistakes in Joshua's Key imply that they are derived from one particular fact about it. Now i recognise that i am guessing, i have no way of knowing for sure, but i would not be surprised to learn that the book has developed from a series of stories told by Brading to her children. The reason i suggest this is that the errors i have identified seem to me to be related, very possibly, to the transition between the spoken and the written language. It seems quite likely to me that Brading told the story originally, then decided to write it down, and did so in just the fashion she had told ~ or possibly was telling ~ it. Unfortunately, in the process she did not realise or make full use of the conventions of written English grammar and punctuation, relying instead on those of the spoken language, which are different.
This single and fairly simple mistake is a great pity, as i fear it will cause some people to be driven from the book. That is to be regretted as, so far as i have gone into it at this point, it is a good story deserving to be told. On the brighter side, though i no longer read aloud and am sadly not likely to for some time (grandchildren please!), i suspect that Joshua’s Key would be an excellent book to be read to a child. Under those circumstances, the spoken grammar would not be such a barrier.
The final, overwhelming lesson to be drawn from the book is the importance of a good copy-editor prior to publication. If a reader cannot find his way easily into a book, no matter how great it is, the risk to the author is that it will no be read. And that would be sad.

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