The pedant seeks error, not truth, and delights to find it. Indeed, the search for error may be the entire purpose of his reading, to judge from certain books dating from the 19th century in my possession. In them, the sole mark made by a previous reader is the emphatic underlining, often accompanied in the margin by an explanation mark or some other expression of joyful discovery, of an error, whether of printing or grammar or fact, and of whatever magnitude. The intellectual or moral significance of the error is quite beside the point; it is the fact of error, and of having found it, that is important to the pedant. He is like a predatory animal stalking its prey, pouncing on it when it comes out in the open.
An “explanation” mark? Is this a sting operation to catch pedants? Surely he just left that there as bait?
Last summer, I was browsing through a book, grading it for resale. It was some hardcover fiction novel which looked to be in pristine condition. While flipping through the pages, though, I caught sight of what looked like pencil markings about two-thirds of the way through. Unusual, I thought; who marks in their beach reading, especially if they’re not going to keep the book? There was one line which referred to a character looking out hizzorher office window in Lyon toward the Mediterranean. Our volunteer copyeditor had underlined “Lyon” and placed a pair of question marks in the margin, followed by a sputtering “Marseille? You can’t see the Mediterranean from Lyon!!”
I was tickled to imagine our anonymous crusader, who, as I said, gave the book away, perhaps out of disgust, but wanted to make sure that no unwary readers would be led astray by such a careless lack of basic research. I like to imagine that a stern letter to the publisher was also sent urging corrections to any future editions (maybe even a direct admonishment to the author, accompanied by a map of France). I don’t remember anything else about the book, not the title, not the author. I know little about France and am not particularly interested to know more. But I have to admit: by God, I know where Lyon and Marseille are now, and I know which one is on the Mediterranean. I like to imagine our tightly-wound pedant offering me a tiny smirk, a knowing look, and a tip of the hat before turning back to another book, pencil in hand.