Cormac McCarthy, copy editor extraordinaire

Cormac McCarthy, author of 'No Country for Old Men' and 'The Road,' has copy-edited a biography of a quantum physicist.

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy volunteered to serve as copy editor for Lawrence Krauss's biography "Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science" simply because “he loved the book so much that he wanted to make [it] better.”

In a letter to Bertha Krantz, his longtime copy editor at Random House, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Cormac McCarthy wrote: “Thanks for your corrections. I hope you understand that they are always welcome. Copy editors are becoming about as rare as any other form of literate life and my offer still stands to have you to read the next book – and/or any future books. I'll talk to you soon. Much love – Cormac.” The letter, written in 1992 upon the publication of "All the Pretty Horses," clearly expresses the author’s esteem for talented copy editors like Krantz (who also worked on Ayn Rand’s behemoth "Atlas Shrugged"), but who could have foreseen that the author himself would join their ranks some 20 years later?

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education publicized Cormac McCarthy’s role as copy editor of the paperback edition of "Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science" by Lawrence Krauss, to be released next month by W.W. Norton. Krauss, a theoretical physicist and director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University, told the Chronicle that McCarthy, whom he has known for about four years, had voluntarily offered his services because “he loved the book so much that he wanted to make [it] better.” He added, “Having Cormac’s name on the paperback is one of the biggest honors I could imagine."

Integral to the process of revision was the excision of “all exclamation points and semicolons, both of which he said have no place in literature. [McCarthy] went through the book in detail and made suggestions for rephrasing in certain points as well.” (The physicist Richard Feynman himself was, ironically, no foe of exclamation marks, as evinced by the title of his popular autobiography, "Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character as Told to Ralph Leighton.")

Despite his denunciation of exclamation points and semicolons, McCarthy has been guilty of using them in some of his own works, so is it fair to accuse him of hypocrisy? Those eager to defend the famously reclusive author from such a charge might say that the vendetta against certain forms of punctuation reflects a shift in the author’s attitude rather than a long-entrenched view. Yet, his letter to Krantz suggests that even in moments of deepest gratitude, McCarthy was not one to make heartfelt effusions or to give overt indications of his feelings; there is not a single exclamation point (or semicolon) in the laconic note that recalls the sparse lyricism of his prose.

McCarthy’s involvement with Krauss’s book does not represent his first venture into copy-editing. In 2005, he undertook the polishing of Harvard physicist Lisa Randall’s "Warped Passages: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions." Randall, praising his skills, told the Radcliffe Quarterly, “He really smoothed the prose.” She elaborated to The New York Times Arts blog, “Cormac isolated all the semicolons in the margin; I then removed them. Apparently exclamation points are only for exclamations! Those were removed too."

According to a recent article on the Daily Beast, since the 1990s, McCarthy has formed part of the group of intellectuals at the Santa Fe Institute, an independent research center founded by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and discoverer of the quark Murray Gell-Mann. When he’s not busy pounding away on his typewriter (he claims to have written a few books at the Institute), McCarthy contributes to scientific discussions and impresses his colleagues by asking questions that reveal his “knowledge of math and physics, and in particular the histories of those fields [to] exceed that of many professional physicists and mathematicians.”

McCarthy articulated his abiding interest (love is perhaps too strong a word) for science and stimulating conversation: “I’m not here because I’m a novelist,” he said. “I just managed to sneak in. I haven’t read a novel in years. I’m here because I like science, and this is a fun place to spend time. There’s good craic."

Rhoda Feng is a Monitor contributor.

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