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.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates

As slaves we were this country’s first windfall, the down payment on its freedom.

In the Dream they are Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers. to awaken them is to reveal that they are en empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.

I do not want to raise you in fear or false memory. I did not want you forced to mask your joys and bind your eyes. What I wanted for you was to grow into consciousness.

The first book I completed this year was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ letters to his son, a memoir examining issues of race in America. Coates recounts his experiences growing up in rough neighborhoods in Baltimore, his awakening at “the Mecca” (Howard University), his years of writing about racial issues, and the losses he suffered along the way.

Between the World and Me is an angry book, but also a fearful one, and fear is the source of much of the anger. Coates appropriately focuses on black bodies and how, whether through slavery, limitation, incarceration or, particularly recently, police brutality, those bodies are destroyed. If, as he argues, the government is the “legitimate” authority of white America, the police represent the force, the killing edge of that authority, a blade that is often wielded against black bodies. This violence is often racial, but it is not exclusive to white people. It deputizes members of minority communities, making them complicit in the ongoing racial violence.

I read most of Between the World and Me in Washington DC, including a brief stint outdoors sitting between the Capitol and the Library of Congress—one building built by slaves and another that uncritically commemorates Thomas Jefferson. The overall appearance of the Capitol and its accompanying monuments would likewise be much different were it not for other racially constructed legacies such as the white-washing of the polychromic appearance of classical antiquity. Reflecting on these issues is not sanitizing history, but the first steps in grappling with it in search of a better future.

There are points at which it is possible to disagree with Coates and he admits but does not address how many of the same things he talks about apply to other minority groups. But this is a memoir, not a history of race in America, and Between the World and Me is all the more powerful for it. This should be mandatory inclusion for any civics reading list and my only regret is how long it took me to get around to finally reading it.

ΔΔΔ

Earlier this week I finished reading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, a book that is as immersive in its dystopic vision as any of Atwood’s other work I have read and yet fell short of her best in its achievement. I am now reading (and am somewhat baffled by, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel The Pale King.

Wishful Drinking – Carrie- Fisher

Like real life is this other thing, and we’re always trying to determine what’s going on in this distant, inaccessible, incomprehensible place.

“What are they like in real life?”

“That happened in real life? Really?”

Stuff like that.

When I was working in Boston in 2008-2009 my then-boss went to a Carrie Fisher stand-up show, Wishful Drinking, giving it positively rave reviews. I missed my chance to see the show in Boston, but it has been hovering near the top of my list of books I’ve wanted to read ever since. A couple of weeks ago I happened upon a copy in my local library and so it became the first book in my month(+) of reading books written by women.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t a post where I write up reflections on a book with a personal anecdote, saving those comments for a final, reflective section, but if there is any book to invert this structure for, it is this one.

Wishful Drinking is memoir version of that stage show. These origins were particularly evident sometimes as it had a particular rhythm that felt spoken. It could be repetitious, with repeated phrases and punctuation designed to evoke the experience of watching someone perform. Mostly this worked; many of the pictures shown during the show are in the text, but it was also a constant reminder that this material would be even more spellbinding in the hands of a skilled performer.

But this is all prelude, without actually talking about what the book is. Wishful Drinking is a memoir that is candid about mental illness, fame, drug use, and the intersection of the three. Fisher doesn’t focus on a particular episode in her life, but ranges widely over her life and is by turns funny and heartbreaking. She is up-front about her problems, in terms of her personality and her mistakes, and, in the process, making light of the the discontinuities of her life. For instance, she talks at length about how her parents were famous and yet her family was decidedly backward in culture and her experience with becoming a sex-symbol at a young age.

Fisher has a relentless focus on her own experiences and issues without offering wider commentary in a way that might be construed as narcissistic. And yet I don’t think it is. Wishful Drinking is a slim and engaging read and Fisher holds her audience’s attention for as long as she wants it, whatever the medium. But neither is this memoir just entertaining fluff. The focus on mental issues is a poignant look into otherwise invisible problems that are only slowly becoming appreciated.

Along the way, Fisher delivers observation after observation about the intersection of class and fame, illness and profession. The one that leads this post stuck out because it is one that seems particularly important to the modern world where people’s professional lives are looking increasingly unlike they have in the past. College? Athletics? Graduate School? Academia? Writing? Each of these things are bandied about as processes from which one must eventually give up and join the real world. As though that isn’t what those people are doing.

Wishful Drinking lived up to my lofty expectations and I’ve added her more recent memoir about her experiences filming Star Wars to my list.

ΔΔΔ

Continuing with my plan to read more books by women, I finished reading Rosemary Sullivan’s biography Stalin’s Daughter and have now begun reading Robin Hobb’s Royal Assassin.