Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen

Graduate school changes reading habits. I went through a lull in the middle of my program while preparing for my comprehensive exams and then emerged effectively incapable of reading non-fiction. I could still get lost in a story; reading for the sake of learning just put me to sleep. Emerging from this place has come slowly, but I cleared ten non-fiction books in 2018, and I am on pace this year to easily overtop my mark from last year. One of the reasons for this change is a shift in the genres of non-fiction I read in step with changing career goals. In particular, I find myself increasingly drawn to books, including memoirs, about writing.

Mary Norris, a longtime employee in The New Yorker‘s copy department, and her Between You and Me, fit squarely in these interests.

Between You and Me is a a cross between memoir and discussion of grammar and punctuation. Norris write on topics that range from her short career delivering milk to arriving at The New Yorker to the finer points of dashes to her preference for pencils with number one graphite, deploying a touch so light that it borders on frivolous. On the whole, I found Between You and Me uneven.

As the title implies, the governing principle in Between You and Me is the confession. Here, confessions include both the personal of a traditional memoir and the professional––that is notes on usage. I liked the personal because I am fascinated how people come to work at an institution like The New Yorker, even when those reflections feel like reminiscing about halcyon days. Norris presents her path as serendipitous, but, beneath her bubbly prose, she is also clear about her luck.

My response to the professional was more muted. There are parts I liked: memorable explanations (commas, like nuns, travel in pairs) and a discussion of The New Yorker’s house style in conjunction with the changing currents of American usage (for instance, pronouns and gender). Other parts dragged. The passages discussing where the hyphen in Moby-Dick entered or why Dickens and Melville use so many commas got a bit tedious for my tastes, but were largely okay. But when Norris veers toward discussion of grammar and punctuation for their own sake I found most of the explanations unsatisfactory, with humor seeming to mask this weakness, but the humor landing weakly because it lacked substance.

In part, my problem here was Norris’ philosophical position on the prescriptivist/descriptivist debate––whether there grammar ought to change with usage or adhere to the set rules. Norris’ position is somewhat at odds with itself: although never explicitly stated, she came across as a descriptivist (language changes, for good or for ill)…except when a style guide at, say, The New Yorker, trumps voice. I’ve published articles under style guides that I wouldn’t otherwise follow, so I am sympathetic, but Norris also sets about undercutting that same style guide by locating its genesis in the preferences (i.e. the usage) of legendary editors. These passages were on their own fine, but that presentation, in turn, undermined the importance of the subsequent advice about writing.

In sum, Between You and Me is an easy read written by someone who clearly loves words and a book that has its moments. There are even individual chapters that I could see assigning to students, but for a book I opened really wanting to like, I closed it feeling disappointed.

ΔΔΔ

I finished reading Black Leopard Red Wolf last weekend and am still trying to decide what I have to say about it. In short: the prose is beautifully and grotesquely hallucinatory, but I’m not totally sure I know what was always happening. Next up, I just started reading Lian Hearn’s Across the Nightengale Floor, a fantastical epic set in a world inspired by Medieval Japan. I am a little wary of cultural appropriation (Hearn is a British woman living in Australia), but I am quite enjoying the story nevertheless.