Tuesday, April 20, 2010

exclamation points

I once worked at a publishing house in New York. This was a long time ago, before the Internet and at a time when more people read books. Anyway, one of the books I was assigned to edit was a compendium of American Civil War battles. It was nothing but a laundry list of every battle ever fought -- from skirmishes to the blood-bath encounters. It was a very good idea for a book, considering the interest there was and is in the Civil War. Historians and Civil War buffs can really get into things, so a book with every battle ... well, it was like creating a book about all the baseball players who ever lived.

But I ran into one problem with editing the book. While there was no requirement that the book should be anything other than a straight description (no arty metaphors needed), the author insisted on putting in exclamation points when he found something particularly moving or important.

I must have run up hundreds of dollars in phone bills trying to explain to him that exclamation points were not part of history. When quoting someone, an exclamation point might be appropriate ("Come here!"), but in indirect discourse, when just describing the facts, exclamation points did not work and were not appropriate.

The author refused to take them out. I tried and tried and tried to tell him ... and he simply refused to change the copy or to be dissuaded. I don't know what ever happened to the book. It had been through several editors before it got to me and I never could get the thing in shape for publication.

Exclamation points belong to human beings. They do not belong to history, no matter how horrific or miraculous that history may be.

Each of us has our exclamation points, I imagine. And there is nothing wrong with it ... until we try to impose our exclamation points on something called life ... you know, the stuff of history.


  1. was it this book?


  2. Hi Anon -- I honestly don't know. I worked my tail off on the thing, but it never came to fruition/publication while I worked at Doubleday.