Books and House & Home by Tamzin Baker

Tuesday 30 November 2010

As a teenager growing up in a small town in northern California, Jay McInerney's novel, Bright Lights, Big City, held special allure. I picked it up one summer and poured over its pages at the breakfast table, during lunch breaks from Driver’s Ed, and at night in bed. Strangely enough, it wasn’t the narrator’s misadventures in a foreign city that intrigued me most, but the details of a job that seemed paradoxically straightforward and complicated: fact-checking.

There is something quite satisfying about the process of fact checking, an unexpected discovery I made as an intern at the Books/House & Home desk. Perhaps it is in act of research, navigating through varied sources, or perhaps it is in the accumulation of small details, esoteric and banal. Though I’m sure to forget most of what I’ve looked up, it’s entertaining to think about the amalgam of details floating around in the back of my mind.

I was, for example, amused to discover that Helianthus annuus is Latin for sunflower, and that Ragged Robin isn’t the name of a garden bird, but of a fragile, pink flower. Even more satisfying are the historical facts, the discovery that Marcel Proust tucked a freshly cut flower into his lapel every morning, that he wore an otter-lined overcoat until its fur rubbed down to a waxy brown leather; I never knew that Tolstoy insisted on drinking Koumiss, fermented mare’s milk, while reading from his Greek tutor, Herodotus, or that he suffered a nervous breakdown shortly following the completion of his masterpiece, Anna Karenina. These details may strike some as mere trivia, but for me, they provide a richer context.

I have carried out a number of other duties, and I’ve even been able to write the odd piece here and there. I have most enjoyed the feeling of participating, albeit in the smallest way, to the production of this publication. And now when I read pieces of remarkable reporting, I will try to imagine the people who meticulously paused over every name, place, and number, every noun for verification. And like Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, who was once so floored by a piece of writing that he vowed to honour the fact-checker with a paid holiday to Iceland, I will think of all those behind the scenes who helped bring the article to fruition.


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