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Some readers like to see portraits of authors they admire, study their personal histories or hear them read aloud. I like to know whether an author can spell. Nabokov spelled beautifully. Fitzgerald was crummy at spelling, bedeviled by entry-level traps like “definate.” Bad spellers, of course, can be sublime writers and good spellers punctilious duds. But it’s still intriguing that Fitzgerald, for all his gifts, didn’t perceive the word “finite” in definite, the way good spellers automatically do. Did this oversight color his impression of infinity? Infinaty?
Bad spellers are a breed apart from good ones. A writer with a mind that doesn’t register how words are spelled tends to see through the words he encounters — straight to the things, characters, ideas, images and emotions they conjure. A good speller, by contrast — the kind who never fails to clock the idiosyncratic orthography of “algorithm” or “Albert Pujols” — tends to see language as a system. Good spellers are often drawn to poetry and wordplay, while bad spellers, for whom language is a conduit and not an end in itself, can excel at representation and reportage.