Remarks are Not Literature, or, Does This Text Even Exist? Or, A Typo On East 41st Street?
According to the plaque, this is an excerpt from Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. This is not mirror writing. Aside from the bold phrase in the middle of the passage (“…remarks are not literature”), which reads in the usual direction, every word is spelled backwards–the type is not reversed–while preserving the order that would make syntactical sense in a coherent sentence typed the conventional way.
I love “esoteric” backwards. Ciretose. “Pretentious” backwards is decidedly so. “This” in reverse is begging to be shit. But then who am I to judge.
Now, find the typos.
My eye landed on the first one by accident. (In the picture above, the boot marks the spot.) At first I thought the slow, murky weather was making me foggy, but somehow “hsirebbir” seemed wrong. I deciphered the passage under my breath, and the word continued to announce its wrongness. It annoyed me. Wouldn’t the typesetter have been extra careful in a case like this? Surely the book-loving people at the Grand Central Partnership would’ve retained a proofreader who was on to Stein, or who at least specialized in bronze lettering. Or, scrapping that theory, I wondered if Stein could be playing a weird joke on the reader, bidding him or her to slow down (in New YORK) and read her experiment more carefully. It’s clear that “gibberish” spelled backwards is “hsirebbig”, not “hsirebbir”, as represented here, but maybe she was slipping in a typo at the end of a bewildering passage in order to drive home the point that “this is not gibberish,” or that maybe it is, and that “remarks are not literature,” or that maybe they are. After all, ribberish is a perfectly good example of gibberish (with a hint of ribaldry, though with an effect that’s maybe not as bawdy as what Tom Hulce does in the opening scenes of Amadeus: here, randomly, with Spanish subtitles that preserve the reversals.)
I checked, and Stein is not misspelling. In fact, I can’t even find this text. (Can there be a typo of a text if there is no original text?) But I do think that—regardless of whether Stein was actually involved—this plaque is asking us to pay attention.
Interjection: Can anyone help me find the actual passage from the Autobiography?
Let’s assume that the passage exists and that the error is unequivocal. If so, then it’s probably there for good. Some authors are disturbed by the sight of typos in their work. Can we tolerate mistakes? Stein would probably have been delighted by such an indelible blooper—by a typo in a very public tribute to the endurance of high literature (or the ability of literature to endure us as we walk past it). The thought could make you giddy. A typo that’s ignored only proves that we move too quickly for our own good, and that’s a hard lesson to remember while stalking past tourists in the East 40s.
If you need a break from midtown toil or are sick of your usual route to work along UN Way, consider taking the following detour: Walk westward along East 41st St. and pay a visit to this plaque (perhaps tell me what you think), then head around the corner, maybe with a cup of soup or a brioche, to the dining terrace behind the NYPL, where you’ll find a statuette of the writer seated like a quizzical Buddha above Bryant Park.
*Update on the other typo: “knowledge” is misspelled “sdelwonk”, or knowleds, which happily makes me think of being led through the city by a knowing, invisible guide. I’ll go for a walk to think about this.