I am idly picking up index cards of various neon colors from the floor of my office, the tones one of many failed strategies to organize details as I finished writing my last book, about a year ago. The book comes out soon, and now that editing cycles, proofreading, art, cover and even index are complete, there is really nothing more to do than finally address the office carnage. Piles, folders, photocopies litter the carpet like corpses after a siege. Now should come filing, organizing, recovery.
But then comes a distraction in the form of a card with a quote from a young archaeologist. The subject of my book was an Englishman named John Lawson, who in 1700 began a long wander through the Carolinas, which I retraced. I met the archaeologist early in the enterprise and explained that to this day nobody was quite sure why Lawson, then around 25, came to Carolina and took his trip. She snorted at me.
“He was taking a gap year,” she said. Ha! Noted, of course, and eventually index-carded. And as for Lawson’s propensity for showing up in Indian villages unannounced and taking whatever food and lodging he was offered? Another shrug. “He was couch-surfing.” Which of course I scribbled down, and suddenly I understood my subject in an entirely new way.
A way that — oh no! — made it into my notebook and onto an index card but never, I suddenly realize, into manuscript, much less finished book. And given that the manuscript went to the publisher long ago, and that the book is probably on some printing press now, it is too late. Remember the ohnosecond, that tiny moment between “send” and regret we all learned about with the dawn of email?
Welcome to the ohnocene, that glacial lapse between the last-no-seriously-these-are-the-very-last corrections and the actual appearance of a printed book. Though maybe even ohnocene does not quite express it — this is more than time, this feeling occupies space, contains multitudes. This feels like an entire environment: the ohnosphere, where regret is the apex predator. At this point, I have only two dominant feelings about my manuscript: the first is deep remorse that I have left out what I recognized only too late as utterly essential elements; the second is fear about having gotten something wrong.
I suppose this has always been true, but the counterexample of our modern process of immediate online publishing throws it into higher relief. For example, someone will inevitably point out an error in this essay once it appears — and in an hour it will be corrected. But once you send a book to press, you have got months of nothing but night sweats. Events during the ohnocene are almost solely unpleasant.
In fact, we have just seen an example of one of the worst species of ohnoevent with the discussion of Jill Abramson’s “Merchants of Truth.” Before that book’s publication, journalist Arielle Duhaime-Ross claims she found several errors and false implications in a single paragraph of Abramson’s book. Wide discussion of that and other seeming inaccuracies sparked Twitter threads about how little fact-checking occurs in book publishing, which is entirely, dispiritingly, true. My book was well edited, but nobody fact-checked it, so a scenario like Abramson’s current one is all too plausible. Mind you, there are facts in my book that have waked me at night already, and then I have checked them and felt a little better, only to have the same facts wake me again later. They will keep waking me, if past is prologue, until the book comes out, at which point — usually, anyhow — the errors that emerge are small and merely embarrassing, or at least not actionable.
But as cringe-inducing as errors are, my books are less hard-hitting investigations than meditations on the previously unnoticed. So given that my entire goal in writing is to get readers to notice things they have not paid attention to, it is the things I fail to include that make the ohnocene so unendurable.
Yet here I am enduring it once again, minute by minute, until it creeps to its end. At which point we enter the ohwellocene. Do not let me forget to tell you about it.
Scott Huler is the author of seven books of nonfiction, including “A Delicious Country,” which comes out March 4.