Between You and Me by Mary Norris

Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (Norton, 2015), 228 pages

BYAM Norris

Ah, now, this is the kind of book I like to read between books: short, lively, interesting…at least to those who worry that the people who say “between you and I” will take over the world and use grammar to enslave the rest of us. OK, that’s silly, but to authors and magazine editors like Mary Norris of the New Yorker magazine, grammar and punctuation are the only things that stand between them and unemployment. Of course it’s important to them, but I’m not sure the rest of us lose much sleep when someone says “Just between you and I, this stuff is not that important.”

But it sort of is. I know language evolves, and what I just wrote is a product of the evolution. Not long ago, I would have written “But, in a way, it is.” Now using “in a way” seems to me pedantic, a bit fussy, sort of old-fashioned. Using “sort of” seems to me friendly, informal, and, in a way, contemporary.

I just wrote somewhere else this week that every day we teach people how to treat us. We do this by how we dress, how we talk, and how we write. Our texts and speech reveal a lot about our economic and educational level. In the United States, where we do not have a strict class system established by birth, we get to self-declare our status, but only to the extent that we fit in well within the group.

This book shows how you can move up from the “between you and I” class to the “between you and me” class, and it’s a fun read along the way. (Take that last sentence as less than serious, okay?)

What? How can a book about grammar and punctuation be in any way fun? (Note what I did there: “be sort of fun” just did not seem to strike the right note I was going for there. This is that kind of thing that editors do for authors, except I’m on my own here in these essays.)

Norris makes it fun because, during her exploration of the rules, she works in stories about the editors at the New Yorker and the authors she worked with as she delimits her set of rules about commas, hyphens, and so on. Near the start we meet Lu Burke (page 45), a crusty old editor who brandishes a “comma shaker” (and old cheese shaker from an Italian restaurant) to add commas to sentences to enhance their clarity.  (As a technical writer, where absolute clarity is paramount, commas are an essential, and indispensable, part of my job.)

The New Yorker uses the “Oxford comma” (page 95), which Norris calls the “serial comma” because she doesn’t think Oxford did enough for language to deserve to have their name attached to this comma. (She felt “alienated” on a trip to Oxford.) The New Yorker, it should be noted, in spite of the success of the Oxford dictionary, is a Merriam-Webster dictionary shop, and Norris makes many references to the “Big Red Web” as the go-to reference for the magazine.

The serial comma is part of the book’s emphasis on the magazine’s “close” punctuation usage, which tends to put commas everywhere and anywhere there is even a chance, however slight, of reading the sentence the wrong way. By now, it should be obvious that I am a “close comma” devotee.  On page 101, Norris mentions the sentence “Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret…” as a “close comma” example. She points out that writing “Before Atwater died of brain cancer in 1991…” implies that Atwater has died in other years, and of something other than brain cancer.

There are others who use a more “open” style for a number of reasons. One is space: taking the serial commas and close commas out of a huge multi-volume work can save hundreds of pages. But without these commas, you can get some odd meanings. On page 93, Norris offers “We came with the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” Page 94 has “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

I don’t mean to get stuck on commas. Norris has gems in every chapter. She thinks of parentheses, rare in fiction, as “giant commas” (page 103) and commas as “tiny parentheses.” She considers rendering Atwater’s demise as “Before Atwater died (of brain cancer in 1991)…” but rejects the implied whisper over the reverent tone.

She points out how the apostrophe possessive is slowly disappearing (page 152), and how it had been legislated out (in 1906) of place names like Pikes Peak or Harpers Ferry (or Times Square). Only the blue-bloods of New England prevailed with names like Martha’s Vineyard. She has a lot of howlers in this category on page 154: “Taxi’s Only,” “Don’t Judge a Book by It’s Movie,” and the mind-boggling “Toilette’s Are for Customer’s Use.”

Norris has a nice chapter on the correct use of the em dash, the en dash, and the hyphen, which I constantly confuse and drive my editors sort of nuts (or nuts, in a way: take your pick). I like her typesetting software stories about splitting words across lines as “En-gland” (yes, the second line starts with “gland”). I learned that “Moby-Dick” with the hyphen refers to the book itself and that “Moby Dick” without refers to the whale. And that Melville did so poorly with Moby-Dick that he could no longer make a living as a writer and had to take a day job on Wall Street.

This is not to say that everything is cut and dried. Should it be “Writer’s Roundtable” or “Writers’ Roundtable” or “Writers Roundtable”? It’s nice to know that we haven’t done it entirely wrong for more than 15 years. Famous author’s (authors’?) works are filled with “solecisms,” which Norris helpfully defines as “a fancy word for mistake” (page 79). Dickens was fond of putting commas in weird places: “But what principally attracted the attention of Nicholas, was the old gentleman’s eye…” (page 96). This usage seems only to have to do with where Dickens took a breath when reading aloud.

I don’t agree with everything Norris says. She is disdainful of prose authors who mention the “rhythm” of their writing unless they write poetry (page 108), but I think rhythm essential to all prose. She has an entire chapter on curse words and how they should be handled, but got so tied up in knots that I wrote on page 166 that her issues were entering the arena of angelic pin-dancing.

There’s more in the book, a lot more. There are nice bits about pencils, pencil sharpeners (there’s a pencil sharpener museum: no electric ones allowed!), gender pronouns (she’s against the plural “their” to mean the same as the singular “he or she” but considers constructs like “heesh” no better), and the legacy of Lu Burke, the comma shaker lady. It turns out that Lu Burke saved a lot of her salary and died a millionaire, leaving her whole fortune to the Southbury Public Library in Connecticut, fittingly located at 100 Poverty Street. Norris travels to the dedication of the “Lu Burke Circulation Desk” with the comma shaker, and learns that her mentor’s real name was “Lulu.” If there is a better way to end a book—and an essay—on editing with this story, I am not aware of it.

When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

When Books Went to War By Molly Guptill Manning

WBWTW Manning

To balance out the theory of books and reading, What We See When We Read, this week I give you the practice of books and reading, When Books Went to War. This is story of the books that US soldiers read during WW II, with the emphasis on the Armed Services Edition (ASE) of popular books and classics (the subtitle is “The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II”). I have to admit, in spite of my experiences with books and publishing, and my father being a WW II veteran, I had no idea these editions existed. But this is a large part of the adventure of books: finding a book about something you don’t know at all and then learning what the author has to say about it. (The flip side, of course, is that you tend to know only what the author of the first book you read thinks about the topic, until you dig deeper.)

If my father was in the army during WW II, how on earth did I not know about these paperback editions of hardcover books? Well, my father served in the Pacific, and most of Manning’s book concerns the war in Europe due to the Nazi’s burning the works of certain authors (all 565 banned authors are listed in an appendix starting on page 198). My father also read mainly magazines and newspapers. I have to say, I never saw my father with a hardcover book, and only a handful of paperbacks. In my family, my mother was the book reader and maintained the family bookcase.

OK, back to the Manning’s book. To set up the whole “books going to war” thing the author covers the Nazi book burning on May 10, 1933. She points out what a great party this was, and how the reaction in the US and the rest of Europe was kind of feeble. It’s hard to get people stirred up when the victims are books. In Germany, the feeling seemed to be “Well, people shouldn’t write books that piss off the authorities” (blaming the victims is always a popular approach, even today). I did learn something I didn’t know, or didn’t recall: the famous “crystal night” attack on Jewish businesses on November 9, 1938 was triggered in part by the assassination of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath in Paris by a Polish Jew whose family had been expelled by Germany and stranded on the border with Poland (page 9).

Manning points out that one of the key weapons in WW II, for the first time, was a book: Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Naturally, other books would be called into the struggle. And the banned books, all 4,175 of them (not listed) ended up in a Library of Burned Books in Paris founded by H. G. Wells. Oddly, when the Nazi took over France, the collection was not destroyed. Select German scholars were allowed to peruse the collection (page 13), but not foreigners.

This might seem like a long setup, but the story of the book burnings set the stage for the US answer: make the spread of ideas and the free reading of texts part of the military response to the Nazis. But when it came to censorship, the US was guilty to a small degree. But instead of deleting passages to make certain books acceptable, the Victory Book Campaign (VBC), which ran the ASE effort, just passed on distributing such works – there were only a few – to servicemen and sailors (page 140). These works were all available to the public, of course, and soldiers could read them, but not necessarily for free.

After a long journey through early WW II book drives (they collected 10 million books by May 1942 (page 49)), the author gets to the reasons for the light-weight ASE books. Books then were mostly hardcovers, so that’s what they got. These were heavy and hard to carry into the field and so ended up in base libraries. That was bad enough because when you moved around, you couldn’t always finish book, but few people donated the kinds of popular fiction soldiers wanted.  People donated what they did not want, books like How to Knit, An Undertaker’s Review, and Theology in 1870 (page 70), none of which probably got passed around many foxholes.

It was the search for an “expendable,” light-weight, small, popular form of book that resulted in the creation of the ASE format in September of 1943 (page 75). Every cover reproduced the original hardcover edition; a nice touch, I thought. The books were stapled (bugs ate glue), printed on light paper (but better than newsprint), and in two squat columns (easier to read while simultaneously trying to stay alert in the field).

Manning points to books such as The Great Gatsby were considered flops when they first came out. It was as ASEs that many readers first came to books like that and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (one of my mother’s favorites). ASE books exposed the military, most of whom were draftees, to ideas and situations they would not ordinarily encounter – much like warfare. But not everyone was happy that this happened. Controversial books like Strange Fruit (interracial sex and pregnancy – gasp!) and Forever Amber (a woman using sex to climb social, the book was banned in 14 states as porn – double gasp!) withstood serious efforts to ban them as ASEs(page 123). A legislative effort to enforce US censorship (Title V) in 1944 was turned back (thankfully) because it resembled Nazi efforts too closely for comfort (page 140). Control is always tempting to those in control.

Although the VBC made the books, the military distributed them. Requests sent directly from soldiers and sailors to the VBC were routinely denied. But on page 122, some exceptions are cited. A grateful Dutch host was sent a copy of Tarzan of the Apes to give to a US soldier on his birthday, and several baseball books were sent to an Australian soldier who had fallen in love with a US soldier’s copy of Lou Gehrig.

The book is filled with little things that stick in my head (or get “starred” and written down in a note for further use). For example, librarians went from being 80% male in 1870 to 80% female in 1900 (page 54), a breath-taking flip-flop in a generation that saw women moving into teaching, health, and industry (telephony and secretaries) as well. (This emergence in turn fueled efforts to free women from an unending cycle of pregnancies and a life as unpaid servants for their husbands, but that’s a book I read last year. J)

One story near the end of the book closes the circle that began with the Nazi book burnings. At Nuremberg, the Nazis on trial got to read books in their cells. A US major reading Henry Hough’s Country Editor was asked by a captive Nazi if he had finished reading it so the prisoner could read it. The prisoner was Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s Foreign Minister (page 169).

The book ends with a complete list of ASE books starting on page 202. You can get them on eBay, some much more expensive than others.

The legacy of the ASE book is that millions of servicemen (oddly, magazines were deemed to be enough for women serving in the war) came home looking for something good to read. Even today, seeking “a good book” is seen as a somewhat higher activity than finding “a good movie” or “a good game” or “a good TV show,” although reading is usually as much a distraction as the others. Then again, how could I write these entries and argue with that attitude?