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He’s changing the world, one typo at a time

In his book, “The Great Typo Hunt,” Jeff Deck looks back at his quest to save the world from copy catastrophes. An excerpt.

Chapter one: How to change the world
June 8 – 10, 2007 (Hanover, NH)

On a fine June weekend in 2007, in the verdant reaches of northern New Hampshire, I decided to change the world.

The world needed changing — that I knew. Global warming threatened to give us all a lethal tan; war and poverty decimated whole nations; crops worldwide were shriveling; even our brethren beasts menaced us with their monkeypox and bird flu and mad cow disease. I just couldn’t figure out what I could do for our troubled civilization.

Those thoughts echoed in my head as I drove into the idyllic little town of Hanover, New Hampshire, for my five-year college reunion. I’d been toying with the idea of a road trip. Oil addiction and carbon emissions aside, I had to count myself among the many Americans who regarded their cars as a signifier for freedom itself. Any day I could get into my iron steed and — escape. I hadn’t, so far, but I could. I could explore the country, embark on towering adventures, and simultaneously fulfill some noble purpose. Yes, a road trip seemed like a fine idea, but I didn’t know what was worth seeing and, more crucially, I didn’t know how to infuse the trip with the sparkling sap of magnificence. How do people blunder into conditions that their unique abilities alone can resolve? I couldn’t trust that I would wander into a situation where only my intimate knowledge of Final Fantasy lore would defuse a standoff between two rival video-game-obsessed street gangs. I pondered that as I pulled into a parking spot and ventured off to find my classmates.

To exacerbate the matter, it turned out that five years was more than enough time for my fellow graduates to work miracles in the public and private sectors. My heart beat at techno tempo as I listened to tales of the most astonishing exploits and ennobling acts of virtue. I talked with one woman who was slowly restoring ecosystems damaged by the rapacious engines of industry. Another guy, a lawyer, sought to break up harmful corporate monopolies. Others were doctors, bankers, and politicos, all positioned to alter the great trajectory of civilization. And then there was me.

“So, Jeff, what have you been doing?” they’d ask, with the unspoken postscript: “... for humanity?”

Unlike my classmates, I hadn’t erected any schools for Balinese orphans or wrested any kittens from death’s blasting maw. After graduating, I’d moved to the Washington, D.C., area to see what I could do with the skills I’d picked up from a creative writing degree. The chief export of the nation’s capital is, of course, paperwork, so I reckoned I could land some kind of writing or editing position at one of the many nonprofits and associations in the area. An academic publishing house in Dupont Circle took me in and nursed me on the Chicago Manual of Style. I burned a few years there as an editor, managing two strangely divergent publications: a magazine about rocks and minerals, appropriately titled Rocks & Minerals, and a New Age-y journal about consciousness transformation and other inscrutable bits of pseudo academia. Neither topic was exactly my area of expertise. My qualifications for the job rested mainly on my ability to ferret out spelling and grammatical mistakes in text. I found that I was a natural, spotting typos with idiot-savant-esque regularity. I hadn’t had this kind of chance to show off my geeky prowess since winning consecutive junior-high spelling bees. In high school I’d branched out from mere spelling perfectionism to the full gamut of editing delights on behalf of my school paper. At the publishing house, I could water my little patch of textual earth, checking that fluorite was spelled with the u before the o, and that the names of Norse gods had the ðs that they required.

This sufficed for a while, but eventually I noticed the distinct lack of influence that my little labors had on the world outside my publications. I felt the call to return to New England, and I traded D.C. for Boston to be closer to family and old friends. Now I worked as an administrative assistant for a center at MIT that studied climate change, but my heart remained that of a reviser and corrector.

Outside the reunion tent, I bumped into Kevin, an occasional buddy in our college days; he was one of those genial and imperturbable people you wish, upon crossing his path later, you’d known better. I related my minor publication successes, a short story here and there, and that I had at least found work in my field (for a while) as an editor before moving to Boston. Then I asked him, “You’d been doing all that sports broadcasting for the college radio. Did you ever do anything with that?”

“Sorta started to,” he began. It had been difficult at first. Even before he’d left Dartmouth, he’d begun sending out tapes of his broadcasts. A year out of college, he was still sending them out and had gotten a job selling suits to pay his bills, and he decided he needed a new plan. While keeping his job in the evenings, he took a broadcasting class at a local trade school, which got him access to an internship at a television station. This was his ticket back into broadcasting. Over the intervening years, he’d proven himself through the internship and had become a key player at the news station. “So, now I’m in charge of the ten-o’clock news, Monday through Friday nights.”

“Wait ... you’re the guy picking which stories go on the air?”

“That’s part of the job. I mean, that goes hand-in-hand with assigning the stories to people.”

“Which you do, too?” He nodded. Kevin’s story brought the rest of my classmates’ stories into perspective. Determination seemed to be the factor that elevated an ordinary destiny into a life of impact.

That night the reunion featured an event on the upper level of Dartmouth’s sprawling arts center, usually known as “the Hop.” While old comrades, crushes, and foes merged into a perspiring mass on the dance floor, I mulled the question of my destiny outside on the rooftop patio. There I could gaze at the campus quad, the Green, and, beyond it, the eternal phallus of Baker Tower, our axis mundi. As I leaned on the rail, cooling under the Hanover moon, I couldn’t fathom how an editor would go heroically forth among the populace. While medical school or law school served as a straightforward way of approaching a concrete goal, I just didn’t see myself taking up a stethoscope or a gavel. I had to hew to my own talents and strengths, but what instrument could I wield in the great clashes of our era? A red pen? I realized that no matter how I angled my approach to this problem, I’d need to strive beyond my daytime duties as an administrative assistant. Even if the professor I worked for were to go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize (which he did manage to do later that year, with Al Gore), I could not be satisfied with “administrative assistant” as the apogee of my career.

The next day I returned to my apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts, close to some revelation but unable to quite pin it down. In the glaring light of my reunion, I retook an inventory of my current situation. I had plenty of friends nearby, and my aforementioned job at MIT at least paid well. My rent remained cheap, since the landlady’s parents had plastered the house with religious propaganda, scaring off general interest in the property. Things were, all in all, not so bad.

The breezy summer afternoon beckoned to me, so I ambled outside. Maybe I’d seek out a hot dog in Davis Square. But fate intervened between me and that dog. Halfway to my destination, a large white and red object — appalling to any sensitive eye — froze me in my tracks!

no tresspassing.

The sign had been taunting passersby with that loathsome extra s for who knew how long. It hung on a wooden fence around a vacant lot next to a dentist’s office. Sure, I’d noticed this sign before; dozens of walks to Davis Square had occasioned dozens of silent fist-shakings at this very spot. This time, though, the sign’s offense struck deeper. How many spelling mistakes had I noticed over the years in shop windows, street signs, menus, billboards, and other public venues? Countless, I thought.

Not an enterance. NYC Pizza and Pasta at it’s best! Cappuchino! Pistashio! Get palm reading’s here!

To/too, their/there/they’re, and your/you’re confusion, comma and apostrophe abuse, transpositions and omissions, and other sins against intelligibility too heinous to dwell on. Each one on its own amounted to naught but a needle of irritation thrusting into my tender hide. But together they constituted a larger problem, a social ill that cried out for justice.

For a champion, even.

I stared at that no tresspassing sign, and I wondered: Could I be the one? What if I were to step forward and do something? The glare from the extra s seemed to mock me. Sure, others before me had recognized that there was a problem afoot in modern English. Plenty of people had made much hay of ridiculing spelling and grammatical errors on late-night shows and in humor books and on websites weighted with snark. But: Who among them had ever bothered with actual corrective action? So far as I knew, not a soul. A lambent vision descended upon me, like the living wheels revealed unto Ezekiel. In it, I saw myself armed with Wite-Out and black marker, waging a campaign of holy destruction on spelling and grammatical mistakes. The picture widened to describe not just my neighborhood, not just the Boston area or even the august span of the Bay State, but the entire nation.

There was my answer — typo hunting was the good that I, Jeff Deck, was uniquely suited to visit upon society.

I would change the world, one typo correction at a time.

I turned back toward home, abandoning thoughts of hot dogs, and locked myself in my room, as typo-free a warren as one would expect. Typos might leap out from anywhere — were, in fact, everywhere. How should I go about this quest? And would I be alone in my fight, against the whole world? Then it all clicked into place, and the vision stuck. I already had one ally, the Sleipnir to my Odin: Callie, my car. That road trip I’d wanted to take! This would be the motivational engine that I’d been missing. I think I collapsed onto the bed, the force of revelation knocking me unconscious, the proverbial lightbulb blinding me with its incandescent flare. Of course, I had also missed lunch.

When I came to, I decided I should attempt another outing, but this one with much more purpose. I immediately bought a sizable wall map of the United States and tacked it over my bed. With the sunset casting an eerie glow through my apartment, I stood enraptured by the sheer span of the nation. So many tiny names, so many roads. Quite a profusion of territory over which to spread the gospel of good grammar — at least several thousand miles. I’d make a loop of the country’s perimeter, since that seemed the best method for (a) seeing the most of this mammoth republic and (b) avoiding covering the same ground twice.

Are you sure about this? quoth the doubting raven in the dark aerie of my mind. Are you sure, are you sure?

“Shut your beak,” I growled. True, my history did not especially glimmer with derring-do. First off, I had been terrified of driving at least until my early twenties, and my travels to date had never taken me west of Ohio; much of the country, most of it, lay beyond my ken. That in itself could argue for the adventure, but I wondered if I might be getting in over my head, setting too many new challenges at once. I’d been shy growing up, not prone to speaking out of turn or, well, speaking much at all. Once I started going around the country trying to correct typos, I’d inevitably have to talk to other people. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this mission of mine would force me to continually confront strangers — oftentimes over their own mistakes! How far did I honestly estimate that I had come from the meek days of yore?

I chose to put these worries aside. I had plenty of time to address them, while other, more tangible items needed immediate attention. Certainly I wouldn’t be able to take a vacation from work for long enough to travel across the country, correcting typos as I went, so I’d have to leave my job. I’d need to set my sights on loftier concerns than income. Spider-Man always had money trouble, after all. If I took the leap for typo hunting in the pursuit of a better, more grammatically correct world, so be it.

I could still be sensible in my preparations, though. The trip itself would cost some serious bread. I had a savings account with some starter funds hoarded away, and I earned enough that I could save much more. If I cut costs by not going out as much, packing my lunch more often, and refraining from any extraneous purchases, I could probably save a significant chunk of change. I wouldn’t want to travel the nation in the winter anyway, so I figured I could stay at my job through December and then take a couple of months to organize full-time all the little details of the trip. Not only would I have the chance to build up a respectable bank account, but I could also take more time to analyze the various aspects of this trip and decide if I really and truly could pull it all off.

I reached for a pencil on my desk to start jotting down some notes, and somehow I grabbed a Sharpie instead. It felt right in my hand, as though it had always belonged there. This, I thought, could be the tool to make a hero.

Excerpted from “The Great Typo Hunt” by Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Random House.