An Amateurish And Embarrassing Oversight

Recently, much to my dismay, I noticed that on page 2 of my book Eye on Cricket: Reflections on the Great Game there are a couple of serious problems. There, the following passages appear:

‘Nostalgia’ is a term coined by a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, in a dissertation submitted to Basel University in 1688; it was used to describe a depressed mood caused by an intense longing to return home. The ‘disease’ had been noticed among Swiss mercenary soldiers yearning to return from their excursions in the flatlands of Europe to their Alpine mountainous perches….There are two kinds of nostalgia: restorative, which concerns itself with returning to the lost home, and reflective, which concerns itself with longing and the sense of loss.

I had used a review essay by Avishai Margalit as a reference, which includes the following language:

The term “nostalgia” was coined by a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, in a dissertation submitted to Basel University in 1688. It was meant to be used as a medical term to describe a depressed mood caused by intense longing to return home. The disease was noticed among Swiss mercenary soldiers yearning to return from flat Europe to their Alpine mountainous perches….In her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym draws a useful distinction between “restorative” nostalgia and “reflective” nostalgia. Restorative nostalgia concentrates on the nostos—returning to the lost home; while reflective nostalgia concentrates on the algos—the longing and the sense of loss.

This creates two problems for me. One, my text is almost identical to Margalit’s, and I haven’t cited him; two, I have not acknowledged Svetlana Boym’s work for the distinction between the kinds of nostalgia I write about here.

Deeply embarrassed by this oversight on my part, I wrote to my editor at Harper Collins, pointing out the screw-up and suggesting that perhaps we could put things right with an errata notice in the second edition. My editor wrote back, saying that the best option for the moment–presumably till a second edition is forthcoming at which point corrections to the text could be made–would be to write to the authors involved, making note of, and explaining as best as possible, this oversight on my part. One of the authors–Svetlana Boym–passed away just last year, making an apology to her impossible. I did however write to Margalit, pointing him to the passages above and the nature and extent of my mistake. Margalit wrote back as follows:

Dear Samir,
Don’t worry. “Stuff happens” to quote a hateful source.
The part you refer to in the NYRB is based on my lecture, which has been published in Psychoanalytic Dialogues 2011 under the title Nostalgia.
Thank you for letting me know and don’t brood on it.
best,
Avishai

Avishai is very kind, but still, I screwed up badly. In two stages, making amateurish errors along the way (highlighting perhaps the perils of writing and citing in the age of blogging.) First, I cannibalized this blog post for the introductory chapter of my book (parts of it reappear in the quoted text above and in my book’s opening chapter, another couple of sentences show up). I often reuse material from this blog in my writings; I’m unapologetic about this, as I have always intended for my blog to work as a scratchpad of sorts for my writing projects. However, this time my borrowing from myself went wrong. In my blog post, I had excerpted the para above from Margalit’s review and added commentary. In my re-use, I copied over and edited the text from my blog post. Somewhere in the copying and editing, I lost a handle on which text was mine–from the blog–and which text was not, and I ended up a) not quoting Margalit’s text but simply transposing it without quote marks or citations (which let me continue to edit it as if it was mine) and then b) I used Boym’s taxonomy of nostalgia without citing her as source.

I’m an experienced academic and writer; I should know better. I fail students for similar offences, and I call out plagiarism in the work of others. My exculpatory plea that I did not intend to ‘steal’ this material will not make up for very sloppy work on my part. This has not been an experience I have any intention of repeating.

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