Hi, I'm Rebecca Romney. You might know me as "Antique Book Lady" from Pawn Stars. When J.P. and I decided to write a book about books, we knew we needed a unifying theme. We didn't choose our warm fuzzy favorites, or the books that changed the world, or the ones you're supposed to have read but haven't. Instead we chose to talk about stupidity. This led to Printer's Error, a guide through the history of print that celebrates humanity's utter weirdness.
Most printer's errors are just old-timey typos. But as we've all learned with autocorrect, sometimes those errors can hijack a conversation in hilarious or painful ways. Here is J.P. with five examples of printer's errors that completely changed the meanings of classic books.
The Bible is the best-selling book ever produced by the human race, so obviously we can expect to find a few errors here and there. Mistakes in the Holy Book that encourage adultery and swan-fucking would be a swell place to start.
Robert Barker was a royal printer in London, operating at the behest of King Charles I. He was granted the exclusive privilege to print Bibles, but his 1631 run of a thousand copies was inadvertently scandalous.
In case you can't read a five-century old typesetting, number 14 says, "Thou fhalt commit adultery." "Not" is the least-fun word of any commandment, so of course we'd like to think Barker left it out because the dude knew how to party. We can't. We wish we could tell you that this printer's error led to a sudden rise in birthrates as key parties broke out all over London. But in reality, this typesetting mistake would have been considered little more than amusement. But one person who did not find the Wicked Bible amusing was King Charles I. Barker was summoned to a legal hearing and reportedly fined for not proofreading his literally damnable text closely enough. After the hearing, Charles ordered the errant Bibles rounded up and destroyed.
Wicked Bibles are fairly scarce today, and collectors pay tens of thousands of dollars at auction for them. As it turns out, a teensy printer's error not only allowed for Church-sanctioned extramarital affairs, but also boosted the value of Barker's delightfully sinful bible by several magnitudes.
"Swan-fucking" is a term thrown around so often these days, yet sadly, so few of us even know the roots of swan-fucking -- a phrase we literally all say all the time, and you're wrong if you think we don't.
The phrase can be traced back to the Greek mythological tale of Leda and the Swan. Leda was the soon-to-be mother of Helen of Troy, and she was desirable enough (as in, she had a vagina) that Zeus tried to seduce/rape her, "seduce" and "rape" meaning the exact same thing to the uber-randy ruler of Olympus.
Instead of appearing on Leda's doorstep and showering her with compliments and Applebee's gift cards like a real man, Zeus waited until Leda took her daily nude stroll through the forest and then transformed himself into a swan. He pretended to be running from an eagle, then made a lusty bee-line straight for her crotch. It makes sense when you think about it. What else could Leda do? If someone's being chased, a lady should try to hide at least some of that person in her vagina.
The line between rescuing a woodland creature and fucking a woodland creature was apparently blurry for Leda. She gave birth to twins as a result of this aviary indiscretion, and one of those freaky swan spawn was Helen of Troy.
Understanding the story of Leda and the Swan is important for more than just cataloging scenes of bestiality painted by Michelangelo ...
The 1568 Bishop's Bible is known informally as the "Leda Bible" because of the decorative initial that opens Saint Paul's epistle to the Hebrews. Rather than an appropriately Christian ornament like a cross, or a dove, or a priest punching the side of a Planned Parenthood clinic, the printer elected to affix this:
That's Leda taking up one-twelfth of the page to fornicate with a water fowl. On a Pauline letter, no less! Saint Paul may have been the most anti-fucking apostle in the whole New Testament, which he very clearly proved in I Corinthians, Chapter 7: "It is good for a man not to touche a woman." To be fair, Paul didn't say anything about "toucheing" geese.
Leda's impropriety immediately changed the spirit of the book. Opening with a Greek heroine engaged in bestial hedonism really undercuts the more sanctimonious tone of the sermon. Especially when you consider where it was occurring: in the letter G, being the first letter of the word GOD. It's not a rule that's been written anywhere or passed by legislators, but people shouldn't be fucking birds while inside God.
Oh, Huck, you rascal. Is there no end to your antics and use of the N-word? The scandals surrounding Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn began before the book was even published. This landmark of literature had everything a reader could ever want: adventure, humor, controversy, tenderness, the hypocrisy of competing social class structures ... and also a penis.
Yes, that's right, a criminal act of exposure involving a minor, and peddled door-to-door during the 1884 Christmas season. One of the 50 pressmen working on the book couldn't pass up the opportunity to vandalize an illustration in the most inevitable of ways:
The image on the left shows what the pressman was initially working with. The man in the picture, standing there proving that if you don't want a dick drawn on you, don't stand like you want a dick drawn on you, is Uncle Silas. Originally, this illustration was supposed to depict Huck disguising himself as Silas' nephew. Uncle Silas juts backwards in dramatic confusion while Aunt Sally hovers nearby as if she suspects what's really going on. With a few scratches into a printing plate, however, the scene (center) lands Huck squarely in To Catch A Predator territory. Now fully phallused and erect, Uncle Silas is suddenly committing an act of child sexual assault, Sally appears to have arranged the twisted encounter, and Huck is standing there clearly thinking "The fuck?"
What Uncle Silas is sporting there barely counts as a Vienna sausage. You see, in order to pass casual inspection, the penile vandal had to make Silas's peen no bigger than a mealworm. Hang the preacher like a horse and you're going to get caught lickety-split.
The desire to slip this obscenity past the censors must also account for why Silas's manhood starts a third of the way down his thigh. Anatomically speaking, Uncle Silas was a mess.
To this day, rare book dealers always note the position of Uncle Silas's fly in their descriptions of the first-edition copies of Huckleberry Finn with words like curved, defacement, or straight descriptions that all sound appropriately phallic.
In Shakespeare's grand historical drama Richard II, the titular king is a giant asshole. Richard is vindictive, shady, indecisive, corrupt, and totally unfit to rule a country. In the poetic words of the American Richard II, "He's a bad hombre. SAD!" At one point during the play, Sir Stephen Bannon -- um, I mean, Sir Stephen Scroop -- approaches King Fuckface von Clownstick to inform him of how deeply the English rebellion runs. "White beares have armed their thin and hairless scalps against thy majestie."
Wait. White bears? Was the English monarch so thoroughly despised that even the wild animals were taking up arms against him? So according to Shakespeare, polar bears from the Arctic felt personally threatened by King Richard because he planned to pull out of the Paris Climate Accords, or roll back EPA regulations, or some other equally pinheaded act of environmental self-destruction? So they marched their frozen furry asses down to London to beat the living shit out of him?
This explanation is plausible, but a few nagging questions remain. Why do the polar bears have "thin and hairless scalps"? And why are they "arming" themselves? Bears have claws. Huge intestine-extracting claws. At seven feet tall and 900 pounds, polar bears are living, breathing weapons of mass destruction. How did they organize? Can they hold town hall meetings? Etc.
Some printing context may shed a little light on these questions. Compositors used cases like the one pictured below to hold individual letters, numbers, and punctuation while setting type:
Not unlike using a keyboard today, compositors set their type without staring directly at their hands. If the E's and D's were sitting close enough (also like today), one letter could be "picked" by mistake. The whole Shakespearean white bears conundrum was probably nothing more than a typo. After all, if you change "beares" to "beards," you get: "White beards have armed their thin and hairless scalps against thy majestie," and that makes a whole lot more sense. Small printing errors can have far-reaching effects. In Shakespeare's case, they changed a septuagenarian revolt against Richard II into an awesome but thoroughly nonsensical ursine one.
William Blake was an 18th-century English poet, painter, and printer who developed a magnificent technique of relief etching used for book illustrations. He learned this technique from the ghost of his dead brother, Robert, so already we're off to a good start. Blake was fucking crazy. He was also a fucking amazing artist. These are by no means mutually exclusive. Just look at this sketch done by Blake for a new edition of Dante's Inferno in 1827:
This shows the Second Circle of Hell ("The Circle of the Lustful"). It is at once beautiful and haunting and terrifying and resonant and completely, gloriously nuts. Blake was diagnosed by close friend and journalist Henry Robinson as suffering from "monomania." Haven't heard of monomania? Then you aren't from the 19th century, when it was a quasi-psychiatric term for someone who was almost normal except for one (mono) "pathological preoccupation."
"I can look at a knot of wood until I am frightened at it."
"I was Socrates."
"I have an obscure recollection of having been with Jesus Christ."
"For many years I longed to see Satan."
These are all things that demonstrated dear Mr. Blake's pathological preoccupation. Did he talk to the dead? Yes! Was he constantly haunted by terrifying monsters and demons? Yep! Was one of his poems dictated to him by a fairy living inside his parlor? You better believe it! William Blake's mind is what happens when Poltergeist, Rosemary's Baby, and Pan's Labyrinth have a no-holds-barred three-way in the Overlook Hotel.
Consider this contemporary review of Blake's illustration for the 1796 edition of Leonora: "Blake draws men and women without skins, with their joints all dislocated ... imaginary beings which neither can nor ought to exist."
Okay, a little context, here. Leonora was a popular German poem about a young woman (Leonora) whose fiance (William) runs off to the Seven Years' War. Leonora is distraught when he goes missing, and blames God. Because God is kind and loving and all-powerful, he returns William unscathed. Ha, just kidding. Death disguises himself as William, shows up at Leonora's door, and then drags the 16-year-old to hell for blasphemy. That's how Christianity works.
Leonora is a terrifically macabre story, so of course it was immensely popular in 18th-century Europe. Here is an illustration by Johann David Schubert, circa 1800:
You can almost see the Disney movie in the making. Look at those doe-ish eyes, that perfect hair, the supple bosom, the tiny waist. It's physically impossible to ride a horse the way she's sitting, but eat a dick, physics! Leonora is in love! And is that a nude ankle we see? If it weren't for the cones of demonic light shooting out of the horse's nostrils, this would be every German girl's fantasy.
And now here's some art from the side of Blake that wanted to meet the devil:
Now that's how you ride a horse when Death is galloping you straight to Hell. You hold on for your freaking life and pray the naked mosh pit below doesn't get its depraved claws on you. Blake's Leonora is appropriately scared shitless and has no goddamn time for bouncy tits or ankle flashing.
Blake's illustration changed the focus of Leonora from "jaunty ride through the countryside" to "holy shit, demon voyeurs are tearing open the fucking sky!" And this was not a change that readers in 1796 appreciated. Was it a printer's error to have Blake illustrate a German children's poem? Personally, we say, "Of course not! And you're an uncultured ignoramus for questioning it." But considering that Blake was blacklisted after Leonora and never illustrated another book that wasn't commissioned by himself or a close friend, well, we'll say the real error was getting a mentally ill, Satan-obsessed artist to illustrate a children's story.
J.P. Romney has another book called "The Monster On The Road Is Me."
For more, check out The 7 Most Disastrous Typos Of All Time and 5 Tiny Computer Glitches That Caused Huge Disasters.
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