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.

The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

The Greatest Knight: The Remarkable Life of William Marshal, the Power Behind Five English Thrones

By Thomas Asbridge (Harper Collins, 2014) 444 pages

TGK Asbirdge

I have really weird interests in certain historical periods and the geography they involve. The cutoffs at the ends are usually precise: one starts with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. Another stretches from the end of Livy’s narrative in 293 BCE to the start of the war with Hannibal and so spans the whole missing Second Decade of Livy. And then there’s this one that starts with the Norman Conquest in 1066 CE and peters out sometime around 1453 with the end of the Hundred Years War (and the end of the Byzantine Empire). William Marshal, who probably lived from 1147 to 1219 (see the genealogy and family tree on page 389 and the other information on pages 162-3), has a career that falls right into the sweet spot of my interest.

Marshal served four and a half English kings: Henry II, Henry the Young King (who never ruled on his own and therefore I count as a half-king), Richard the Lionheart, John (who was so bad as a ruler that no one ever used his throne name again), and Henry III. So the claim that Marshal was the “greatest knight” is backed up by some pretty solid evidence, including the claim that Marshal was the only knight ever to unhorse the crusading king Richard the Lionheart with a lance. And Marshal was treated quite shabbily by some of these kings, like the time that five-year-old William Marshal was held as a hostage by King Stephen, a monarch that is often overlooked in the rush to get from the family of the Conqueror to the Angevins proper. Asbridge prefers the “Angevin” designation to the common “Plantagenet” name I learned mainly through Thomas Costain’s four-book series, but I never like the Plantagenet thing anyway. But back to Marshal: the story goes that as a hostage, young Marshal treated the threats of hanging and being catapulted to death as games to play with his captors and so won over the stern King Stephen with his childish innocence.

How could we possibly know such a detail from the life of William Marshal? I mean, the monks wrote about the great events of the day, and the kings had the royal scribes or whatever to record their daily activities. But of the common people, or even the knights and nobles, we know little, especially before the invention of the printing press (another of those 1400 watershed events). For William Marshal’s life, we owe the good eyes of a French scholar named Paul Meyer. In early 1861, as detailed in the book’s preface, he saw an intriguing manuscript at Sotheby’s auction house in London. It was part of the Savile collection, a group of rare manuscripts put together in the time of Queen Elizabeth I.

Meyer became a great scholar (his evidence cleared Alfred Dreyfus of espionage charges in 1898), but in 1861 he was only twenty-one and unable to do anything but examine the book before the auction. And there, inside the brown leather, was an account in verse of (as Meyer recorded in his notebook) “an original chronicle, which seems to report the conflict that broke out in England during the reign of Stephen, nephew of Henry I.” Once Meyer became a respected scholar, he tried to find the intriguing manuscript, but it had disappeared into an enormous collection of 60,000 manuscripts (!) held by Sir Thomas Phillipps, and miscataloged to boot. Not until 1881 was Meyer able to read the story of Sir William Marshal, knight, earl, raider, tournament winner, pilgrim, landholder, early Irish settler, and friend of kings, all set out in 19,215 lines of medieval French verse.

I found the account that Asbridge presents of medieval times, especially the tournament circuit in France in the 1100s, and the tension between the conquered English and their Norman (French) overlords, absolutely fascinating. England is not the England of Robin Hood, but the England Richard treats like a source of money and goods to accomplish his real goals of conquest, a place where he spent only a few months of his entire reign. Most of the drama of Marshal’s life plays out on the tournament circuit of Norman France, where the practice was still legal. Even here, the noble combatants often used the jousts and contests as an excuse to get all rowdy and terrorize the countryside (page 62 and 65 has nice details on this).

I learned a lot more about medieval tournaments and combat than I ever knew from this book. I also learned the difference between the Occitan “Langue d’Oc” (where “yes” is “oc”) and French “Langue D’Oeuil” (where “yes” is “oeuil” or the modern “oui”)(page 79). Oddly, this difference plays a role in the Joan of Arc book from last week: when the inquisitor asks with an Occitan accent what language Joan’s voices speak to her in, Joan retorts that “they speak better French than you do.” Joan rocks, I think.

One of the claims of the book is that men like William Marshal helped to usher in the fall of the noble-knight-vassal-peasant system. Asbridge’s argument is persuasive, and includes the observation that the rise of a more stable, moneyed economy meant that knights could just pay their way out of that nasty-dangerous warfare thing and sit home in the castle while contributing to the ruler’s war chest or supplying a bunch of paid mercenary volunteers to do their dirty work. Sturdy household knights became rich nobles, and much of this evolution took place during Marshal’s lifetime.

The defining moment of King John’s reign is, of course, the Magna Carta forced on him by his nobles to limit the whims of majesty. But I never realized how complex the process and document were: the clauses cited on pages 332 and 333 make readers almost feel sorry for poor King John.  But King John wasted no time trying to destroy the lives and careers of those who opposed him. William Marshal, who owed almost everything he had to the kings of England, officially backed his king instead of the French invaders under Louis of France – yes, 1066 was the last successful invasion of England, but Louis had no problem rampaging through Kent. Only after John’s death did the nobles decide they would rather have a weak Henry III than a strong Louis ruling over them.

On a complete tangent, this book made me aware of a great film featuring a fictionalized “Thomas Marshal” and his knights. In 2011, the movie Ironclad depicted the siege of Rochester Castle by King John in 1215. Although in many ways a complete fantasy, the film does capture the real brutality of the times and the fine line the well-off had to walk to stay in the good graces of everyone who mattered. The peasants ran into the woods and the monks headed for the hills (of Rome), but those with castles to defend were sort of stuck with defending it.

This is the second book in as many weeks that impressed me with both the selection and the quality of the color illustrations. Where else can you find illustrations of the shields of nobles and knights (facing page 141)? Or the seals they affixed to the Magna Carta (referenced on pages 349 and 366)?

I love books that are so good you don’t want them to end, that teach you many things you did not know before, and that are well-written and illustrated. This book has it all.


What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

WWSWWR MendelsundWhat We See When We Read By Peter Mendelsund (Vintage, 2014)

This quirky book – there are as many pictures as words, it seems – is the product of one of New York’s top book cover designers. You can plow through it in a couple of hours, at least until you came across an idea or section and go “Whoa! I never thought of the reading process that way.” Then you stop and really think about the ideas the author is presenting for consideration. For example, he writes on p.9 that when we read, we can be submerged (at least in good books) so deeply in the text that we are unable to “bring our analytical minds to bear upon the experience.” It’s like trying to bring up the light fast enough to see the darkness (a phrase he borrows from William James). We really are remembering the act of reading, he says, so this memory is a “false memory.” (I think this is a good thing: otherwise, if the experience of reading a book were burned into our memories for all time, how could we ever enjoy reading a book all over again? And how could it be better or worse the second time around?)

The book startles when it shows us how much we as readers bring to a book. He mentions Flaubert (famously, as he says) changing the eye color of Madame Bovary (page 46): “blue, brown, deep black…” but apparently not subtracting from the character at all. We all clothe characters if not provided with their dress, give them ears big or small, and provide them with a stature fitting their role (the small, furtive, thief; the tall, dashing hero…). We imagine the whole usually, but do not see the parts: how many buttons on the pirate’s shirt? Is his sword curved? We have to “look” inward to find out.

As someone struggling through a novel-writing program right now, Mendelsund has a good point about how “All books open in doubt and dislocation” (page 60). You have to orient the reader immediately. You can transport the reader to a far-off place, as in a fantasy, or open with a sly wink at the reader’s willingness to render the reading process present, but invisible. For the latter, Mendelsund quotes the opening of Nebula Award winner Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler with great approval: “The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph.” The cloud in this case covers much of page 63. (In the epilogue to Moby-Dick, Mendelsund reminds us on p. 290, Ishmael tells us he is “…floating on the margin of the ensuing scene, and in full sight of it…”, and this ever-present margin is much like the dividers of panels in a graphic novel or comic strip, he says.)

Speaking of fantasy, which I imagine I write, on page 235 the author mentions books like Lord of the Rings in which reading involves immersion into a world very different that our own. These books, he says, demand scholarship. The well-done worlds seem “endless” and convey the feeling that the reader can wander off and have their own adventures without the author’s help at all (hello, fan fiction!). A map, he says, is a sure-fire tip that we are entering a book that is really a “compendium-of-knowledge” as well as a story. Readers expect a given level of richness, and the author must provide it.

These are kind of gems you will find in the pages of Mendelsund’s book. The collected points form a scaffold for the book, not like a bridge from one shore to another, but to build upwards into our minds as we read. It’s light, breezy, not pedantic, and all the more effective that way.

Some of the ground he covers will be familiar to those who have studied literature before. Character descriptions are not like wanted posters (and gosh, they shouldn’t be), so readers are free to imagine Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina (his two favorites for this activity) almost any way they want, including eye color. He offers a pictorial array of Madam Bovarys on p. 259. Which is the “real” one? When we read, he claims, images are plucked from our experiences. Mendelsund’s Stalingrad of WW II is mapped onto Lower Manhattan (pages 212-213). And how many people have substituted the Classics Illustrated versions of Captain Ahab and Ishmael (conveniently reproduced on pages 288-289) for Melville’s descriptions of the same?  I have to admit, try as I might to alter the image, the Pequod always resembles the famous war frigate USS Constitution, which I toured in Boston harbor. (He raises much the same point again on page 330.)

This book defies attempts to provide a linear summary. As the eye saccades around the page, gulping in groups of words because the eye cannot focus on text while it is in motion, the book jumps from sections like “Openings” to “Time” and “Vividness.” It ends with “It Is Blurred,” an admission that our world through the fragmented experience of reading words is necessarily incomplete and highly individualistic. Does your lighthouse in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse have windows spiraling up the structure? How high is railing at the top?

I was surprised in the section called “Sketching” to find out how many authors were also visual artists, producing drawings of the characters in their books. These include Poe (portraits), Hesse, the Bronte sisters, Kafka (he insisted that the creature in the “Metamorphosis” could not be illustrated as a real cockroach), and more. On page 177, he has a great story in a footnote about James Joyce giving Matisse permission to illustrate Ulysses. But Matisse apparently never bothered to read the text, because he illustrated Homer’s version instead. I hope this visual skill is not a prerequisite for good writing, because I could never match the pictures that Kipling, Dostoevsky, and Faulkner drew…wait a minute! I’m never going to match their writing either, so why am I worried? J

All in all, the main point is how the act or reading is an act of reader participation in the narrative. We add details, supply continuity when there is none (if the character eats dinner in a restaurant and leaves, we assume that they paid for the meal – and left a tip! – although this is not stated), and so on.

I told you one of things I wanted to do here was connect the books I read, whether fiction or nonfiction, with other books. It’s a bit hard to do in the first post, but here’s how I connect this book with other stuff I think about:

There is another reason I found this book particularly fascinating. I did an ABD (All But Dissertation) PhD program in AI (Artificial Intelligence) at New York Polytechnic (the merger of NYU School of Engineering, where I started as an undergraduate, and Brooklyn Poly). So I am always interested in how human minds process “information.” I’ll talk more about AI and consciousness in other posts, because I read a lot about science and technology. It’s one thing for a machine to read and assimilate text. But when you ask an AI entity to tell you about a book it has read, I’ll be impressed when the AI doesn’t just split back words and phrases from the review or blurb or text itself, like the Rogerian therapist in the early Eliza program (more on all this later).