PUBLISHING TABOOS

Publishers have hedged themselves about with numerous rules, some sensible, some just the opposite. They cling to the pointless rules as obsessively as to the sensible ones. In some matters, they are not unlike the polynesian natives who gave us the word "taboo," in their arbitrary insistence on the commandments that they have imposed upon themselves.

The first leaf in a book is an "endpaper". The second right-hand page is the "half-title page." The rule is, that on this page is printed the title of the book, and nothing else. The taboo forbids the addition of the subtitle, or the author's name, or any other information -- and no page number. Since the very next right-hand page is the real title page, containing all the relevant information, it is hard to understand what purpose is served by the "half-title." It is of no help to the reader, nor is it in any way ornamental. The "half-title page" is sometimes called the "bastard title." Now that makes sense.

Publishers and editors and style-books continue to use the terms "recto" and "verso," even though the meanings of these terms are obsolete. In a modern book, it is no longer true that the right-hand page is the "front" (the real thing) and the left-hand page is its "reverse" (the backside). It is bothersome to have to remember which Latin term means which page. I prefer "left-hand page" and "right-hand page," even though I hear the snobs murmuring "unprofessional."

The rule is that all title pages, and the first page of each section of the book, must be right-hand pages. If the previous item occupied a right-hand page, or the previous section ended on a right-hand page, the next left-hand page must be left blank -- and no page number -- so that the next section may begin on a right-hand page.

In the matter of the serial comma, the publishing world is divided between Big-endians and Little-endians. In a list of three or more items, the items are separated by commas. The bone of contention is the comma before the final item. Is it "red, white, and blue" or "red, white and blue"? One party insists that the "and" before the last item makes a comma superfluous; the other party insists no less obstinately that a comma is necessary here as well. Each party argues that the practice of the opposition may lead to ambiguity. Neither party is willing to believe that a writer who does not follow rules blindly but uses common sense will know when there is danger of ambiguity, and will alter the punctuation accordingly.

It is difficult to imagine anything more unnecessarily redundant than the running heads that bedeck the top margins of book pages. Yet publishers continue to insist upon them, and to enforce rules about their fonts and shapes and positions. The Chicago Manual of Style relents, to the extent of suggesting that perhaps the title of the book might be omitted from the running heads, observing that "most readers know what book they are reading." (Those readers who do not know what book they are reading will in any case not be helped by the running heads.) The Chicago Manual continues, however, to assert that running heads with the titles of parts and chapters are necessary "signposts telling readers where they are." If so, the signposts that are even more necessary are the page numbers -- but these are subject to taboos.

The rule is, that all pages are counted, but a ritual taboo forbids printing the page number on some of them. The taboo pages are: title pages (of the book as a whole and of parts and chapters); first pages of the text of chapters; first pages of parts of the apparatus (table of contents, bibliography, index, etc.); pages devoted to illustrations, tables, examples, etc.; and pages that have been purposely left blank.

One exception is allowed. The page number of the first page of a section may be printed as a "drop folio," that is, at the foot of the page in the center. This is explained as a relic of the days of hot metal typesetting. (Would you carry oats in an automobile as a relic of the days of horse-drawn carriages?)

My first book was published by a company that specializes in academic research material. They save on production costs by requiring that the author furnish camera-ready pages. They sent me their style-book, containing the most stringent, draconic directives and prohibitions imaginable. Of course, even if they had told me to print the pages diagonally in Esperanto, I would have been only too happy to oblige.

The book contains many examples in music notation, most of them in full score, and thus occupying many pages. The style-book laid down the law, that a page devoted to a music example must be counted. but may not show a page number. This prohibition, together with the other usual taboos, created grotesque situations. My book contains a table of contents, and a list of the music examples, and an index which also lists, under the names of the composers, the names of the works from which the music examples were excerpted. But what is the use of these three sections, meant for the convenience of the reader, when all the page numbers listed refer to pages without page numbers? The publishers themselves could not find their way around all these unnumbered pages, and they mistakenly interchanged two of the music examples.

In any book, there will be a table of contents, and lists of illustrations, or figures, or tables, or graphs, or music examples etc. But the rules stipulate that there may not be page numbers on the first pages of parts and chapters, nor on pages devoted to illustrations etc. Therefore, the rules purposely create a preposterous situation, in which all the page numbers given in the table of contents and in the lists refer to pages without page numbers. By the same token, in academic research publications, many of the page numbers given in the citations and the bibliography refer to pages without page numbers.

Apparently, the main thing is not the convenience of the reader, nor is it common sense. The main thing is the rules, no matter how absurd. The White Queen said to Alice: "The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday -- but never jam today." The White Queen would be right at home among the publishers.