Why do books have typos?

The Swerve was written by a distinguished professor from what some folks apparently call “The World’s Greatest University.”  It was published by a top-shelf publisher (W. W. Norton).  It won the National Book Award for Nonfiction.  It’s a big deal.

But in the book we have Greenblatt referring repeatedly to Ptolomey and the Ptolomaic dynasty.  And in a footnote he talks about a “palimsest”.   How can this happen?  Microsoft Word’s spellchecker catches these mistakes.  Heck, even the WordPress text editor I’m using to write this post catches them.  Heads should roll!

My guess is that Greenblatt still uses an electric typewriter or a quill pen or something, and to save money Norton sends manuscripts out to harried freelance copy editors who don’t have time to do anything but skim.  So some of the writer’s mistakes are going to get through.

In the ebook world, everything ends up in a Word file at some point in the process, and that means you can use its spelling and grammar checkers to full advantage.  And you’re an idiot if you don’t.  Of course, they’re not going to catch the amusing faces/feces typo that the scanning process introduced into Summit.  The author is on his own to catch that sort of thing.

Ultimately, these sorts of typos reduce the authority of the text.  It’s not as if Greenblatt is a classics scholar or an expert on the Italian Renaissance — he’s a Shakespeare guy who is extending his range.  So you end up thinking: if he doesn’t know how to spell Ptolemy, what else is he missing?