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.

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).