The great typo-eradication road trip

Plus, a grandfather’s secret Nazi past, a short history of celebrity, strange tales of American gas chambers, the diary of ‘Little Edie,’ and the upside of irrationality

Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson
Do misplaced apostrophes send you into apoplexies? Misspelled words have you reaching for the smelling salts (and then the dictionary)? Never fear, fellow word nerds, we have new heroes in our midst!

After a five-year college reunion led to some soul-searching, Deck decided the keen eye for errors he’d developed as an editor at Rocks & Minerals magazine could be put to better use. And so, the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL) was formed. Armed with a typo correction kit (Wite-Out, Sharpies, chalk), Deck and Herson set out on a 2008 road trip around the U.S., intent on righting wronged words everywhere. For 2½ months, they sought out typos in grocery stores, menus and road signs, making fixes like chalking over the stray apostrophe in a billboard beseeching tourists to “bring your camera’s,” or convincing a store owner offering “Hooded Sweatts” to discard that extra “t.”

Not everyone warmed to TEAL’s mission; some took the pair’s efforts to be uppity, or unimportant. (One correction at the Grand Canyon landed them in federal court.) Deck spends a good portion of the book ruminating over the whys of his mission. He wonders if he is “an agent of the very homogenization I despise.” This is where the hunt moves from a clever gimmick to a thoughtful exploration of larger issues. Do mistakes matter? Do they impede communication? Who is the guardian of the right version of English? Is there one? The Great Typo Hunt is part travelogue, part style guide, and a ton of fun. Deck’s whip-smart writing is a joy to read (though, as a copy editor at Maclean’s, I may be more easily charmed by typo-correcting humour). The book makes a great case for why, although English is always in flux and we may no longer require a “commas-and-brimstone” approach to spelling and grammar, they still matter—and can even be a good time.

Martin Davidson
As a young British boy in the 1960s, Davidson did occasionally wonder how his German grandfather, a West Berlin dentist, spent the war years. But the author’s mother was tight-lipped about the past, and it was only in 1992, when Bruno Langbehn died at 85, that she let slip enough to send her son, a filmmaker and historical writer, on a remarkable voyage of discovery. After she mentioned that her family was in Prague at war’s end, Davidson asked how that had happened: surely ordinary soldiers didn’t bring their children with them on duty? “He was in the SS,” she replied.

Davidson tracked down Bruno’s service record and learned how hard-core a Nazi his grandfather had been: Langbehn joined the party early (1926) and had been one of its brownshirt street brawlers; he was an SS officer two years before the war. In 1940, Langbehn became an intelligence officer in Berlin, until he was sent to Czechoslovakia to set up a network of postwar underground Nazi agents. Never directly involved with the worst Nazi crimes, in 1945 he convinced his Allied captors he was no more than a harmless conscripted dentist.

Demography isn’t destiny, but historians have long noted the crucial role played in the rise of Nazism by the generation too young to have experienced the horrors of the Great War, but old enough to have imbued its nationalistic fervour. Born in 1906, Langbehn was only 12 when the Kaiser’s empire collapsed, and still a teen when postwar inflation ravaged his family’s savings. He was a prime candidate for Hitler’s litany of enemies to blame—above all, the Jews—and the Nazi message of renewal through violence. Davidson turns his family history—after 50 years of its German side scrubbing clean its past, he writes that he was unhappily engaged in “re-Nazifying” them—into a wider account of the men who brought Hitler to power, and loyally kept him there.

Fred Inglis
As Z-list celebs swarm our TVs, websites, and glossy magazines, a number of questions arise. Who are these people? What do they want with us? And what could we possibly want with them? Inglis, a 73-year-old retired professor from Somerset, may not be an expert on the escapades of the Kardashian sisters, but he can supply some much-needed cultural context. He argues that the celebrity phenomenon is 250 years old, and finds its beginnings in mid-18th-century London. Here, as the Age of Reason celebrated the rise of the individual, the likes of Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, and Joshua Reynolds cut wide swaths with their personalities as well as their groundbreaking art. Celebrity, as a realization of the self, began to supersede renown—that is, the now-archaic idea that “success” is a fulfillment of the obligations of an office or profession.

Inglis traces celebrity through mid-19th-century Paris (with the rise of see-and-be-seen café culture and the department store’s public display of private desires), and then to New York and Chicago, where the 20th-century media explosion forged the American Dream from narratives of success. Moving to contemporary times, he offers mini-biographies of public figures from dictators to sports heroes, connecting the dots between them. Although he sometimes ties his prose in syntactical knots (as if to repudiate the facile pleasures of the gossip-mag writing he despises), Inglis writes with panache and erudition. Granted, there are surprising omissions, including Michael Jackson (indeed, the issue of race is largely absent), Elvis Presley, Bono, Hiltons Paris and Perez—it’s more of a selective history than simply a short one.

While Inglis stops short of considering those who are famous for no discernible reason, he does offer us tools to analyze their ubiquity. So the next time your boss finds you looking at a photo of, say, celebrity infidelity on a yacht, you’ll be able to explain: it’s a comment on the industrialization of leisure, the glorification of scandal (arising from Lord Byron’s “dramatization of fame”), and the paparazzi’s exploitation of the general public’s sense of vindictiveness. And thus an even better excuse to put off work.

Scott Christianson
For all his sober tone, Christianson can scarcely write a page of this excellent history without tripping over the endless ironies involved. He makes perhaps too much of the intricate connections between U.S. and German gas manufacturers—though he does stress there is no real comparison between the fate of 594 legally convicted criminals and a million innocent victims crammed into Nazi gas chambers. But the author is dead right that there’s something almost karmic in the fact that the last gas execution in the U.S., in Arizona in 1999, was of a German national, an act ruled—in a neat reversal of the judgment at Nuremberg—a breach of international law by the World Court.

The U.S. gas chamber had a complicated parentage, but its main impetus was as an answer to two deep-set but contradictory American needs: inflicting capital punishment and doing it humanely. Although Nevada led the way, executing a Chinese man in 1924—a fitting start, since more than half of the gassed dead were non-whites—Arizona and Colorado were close behind. The former was distressed by a hanging that decapitated a female prisoner, sending her head rolling among the witnesses; the latter, in order to avoid the expensive expertise of the hangman, had invested in some Rube Goldberg DIY gallows, which, on first try, catapulted a convict over the roofless walls of the execution area into the prisoners’ yard.

Clearly, something had to be done, and in many states—where the idea that such scenes could be avoided by not killing anyone was literally unthinkable—that meant gas. Despite the demonstrable fact that death by gas is no more humane than by any of the other usual means, the gas chamber lasted until the rise of the newest “humane” killer, lethal injection. Given American dedication to the death penalty, the new method is liable to reign for years, at least until someone invents a working Star Trek phaser.

Edith Bouvier Beale,
edited by Eva Marie Beale

“Who knows what will happen in 1929?” asks Edith Beale, better known to fans of the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens as “Little Edie.” For most, it was the year of the stock market crash, but for Edie, judging from her newly published diary—produced and printed by her estate—it was a year of luxury. In the diary, Jackie O’s first cousin is a sickly but spirited 11-year-old who’s been out of school for two years. With few friends her own age (contrived children’s parties are formal sit-down dinners), Edie instead spends her days at her mother’s side. Together they dart between New York and East Hampton—sleeping in, frequenting the theatre or the new “talky” films, walking on the beach and shopping endlessly.

The daily entries—plus the lovely addition of actual reproduced pages dispersed throughout—may read as the indulgences of a spoiled child. But they’re more poignant if you know the pair’s future. Which of course we do: Grey Garden filmmakers will later find the society girl and her mother surrounded by cats and raccoons, descending into squalor and madness in their decrepit East Hampton estate.But sadder than cruel irony is lost potential. This Edie is imaginative and promising—she has hopes of being an author, then a ballet dancer, and finally a costume designer. At 11, she has already had stories published; she’s an optimistic romantic with a fierce crush (“I have never been so completely in love in my whole life”); and maybe even a feminist pioneer: “Have I really got the brains enough to get away from marriage and children?”

Amidst the name-dropping and shopping lists (with prices), Edie drops hints that seem to suggest she knows her opulence won’t last. “It’s awfully funny the way things change,” she writes. “Life wouldn’t be life without change.” Just the fleeting thoughts of a child, but for readers who know what’s to come, Little Edie’s diary becomes eerily prophetic.

Dan Ariely
If you should happen upon Dan Ariely in a thoughtful moment, beware. You might find yourself in the midst of one of his curious social experiments. An economist at Duke University and perhaps the most inventive dismal scientist writing for popular consumption today, Ariely’s specialty is taking everyday events and turning them into lessons on the nature of humanity and economic decision-making.

The Upside of Irrationality follows Ariely’s 2008 effort: Predictably Irrational. Both establish conclusively that humans act in ways that frequently violate the precepts of logic and common sense. His new book offers advice on how to make the best of these irrational tendencies. For example, Ariely is visited by a former student who, despite a great salary and benefits, wants to quit his job after working for months on a business proposal only to have the project cancelled at the last minute. Such apparent irrationality prompts Ariely to create an experiment on the nature of job satisfaction and how it might affect productivity. Participants are paid to put together Lego robots. Those who see their work disassembled before their eyes don’t work as hard as those who leave with their robots intact. The advice: validation can be as important as wages when it comes to work effort.

Similarly, when Ariely’s car breaks down and he gets the runaround from the customer service department, he feels the (irrational) urge to wreak revenge. This leads to an experiment in which subjects are treated rudely in an interview and suggestions on ways firms might avoid making customers angry. When a fellow professor wades into online dating, Ariely creates an experiment that points to a more effective matchmaking process based on how humans really behave. When Ariely wonders why he likes his Ikea bookcase more than its quality suggests he should, the result is—you guessed it—an experiment on how putting something together yourself can influence your feelings toward it. Humans may not be entirely rational creatures. But, according to Ariely, we can still use that knowledge in a rational way.

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