I have a confession–I am unabashedly good with words. (You can’t tell, right?) I can spell just about anything even if I’ve only heard it once, even if I don’t know what it means. For as long as I can remember, I loved to read. And when I was a newbie to America learning English in middle school, I read a lot. I always had a dictionary nearby to look up words I didn’t know. This habit helped cultivate my love of words and added more vocabulary to my brain.
But I’ve never really thought about the English language in its relative complexity–the rules of grammar just sort of came by in the form of books. I’d read a sentence, see how it’s structured (colon or semicolon, dashes or not, etc.) and I just knew that was how it was supposed to be. I didn’t worry too much about syntax or etymology (not to be confused with entomology, the study of insects) until I read Mary Norris’s* Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, and I can say for certain that this is one of those books that left me confused.
Is it a reference book for English grammar? Yes, in a way. Is it a memoir? Sort of. That can be argued, I suppose. Is it a history book, given that there were snippets of history in there? Could be. I don’t quite know how to categorize it. And I’m not certain that Mary knew what type of book it was supposed to be either.
Between You & Me is Norris’ attempt at dissecting the rules of English grammar, given her many decades of experience being a copy editor at The New Yorker. Truth be told, the only reason why I wanted to read this book in the first place is because I love The New Yorker and its writing. I’ve always admired the magazine for their incredible reporting and variety of pieces, all extremely well-written by a variety of writers, despite the fact that many of their pieces are quite long, it’s more like reading a short story versus an article all the time.
Mary Norris, as a longtime employee, has her own column on The New Yorker’s web site called Comma Queen, and what she has written isn’t so bad. But this book, I feel like is simply a regurgitation of the many years of experience editing other people’s work and what her thoughts are on those…which can be a memoir, I suppose. However, a memoir is like a story–it has a beginning, a middle and an end (in my opinion, anyway) and somewhere along the way, the author learns important lessons about themselves and/or those around them. It peaks towards the end–this particular life lesson. At least, that is my experience reading memoirs. Stories that belong in the ‘memoir’ category leads you from beginning to end, whether you’re talking about success, failure or experiences. It does not jump from one thing to another with little to no chronological relevance like it does in this book.
Of course, Mary does start the book by talking about how she became a copy editor at The New Yorker in the first place. As someone whose career began at the bottom in the collating department, then moved on for her eye for detail, I had expected to hear more about her transition into her current position in a much more smooth manner. Instead, there were bits and pieces about a variety of things–apostrophes, verbs, colons, semicolons, dashes, commas, hyphens, etc. and in the middle of talking about all of these English grammar rules, she tucks in a little history lesson–say, the story about why Moby Dick has a hyphen or the guy who created the Merriam Webster dictionary…which is helpful, I suppose, if you’re looking to read about about that sort of thing. But for me, I didn’t particularly understand why she wove in bits and pieces of history while giving examples of certain rules of syntax. It felt like she was jumping from one thing to another and then back again. None of the things she talked about had any cohesiveness. The quick transitions from one subject to another was rough.
So why are you talking about this book? You may wonder. Because around here, everybody deserves their day in court, and I believe the same can be said for books. I realize that just because I didn’t particularly enjoy a book doesn’t mean that other people won’t like it either. It’s simply a matter of opinion. You may find Between You & Me a clever work of prose or a useful compendium for the English language…who am I to say that it won’t? For me, it just didn’t make sense, especially her love/obsession with pencils and pencil sharpeners. There is a whole chapter on pencils (eye roll) and pencil sharpeners and pencil sharpener collectors and museums. (If she had put that chapter in the beginning, I would’ve fell asleep and never make it to the end of the book). After all that’s said and done, she ended the book talking about a deceased editor from the New Yorker who bequeathed over a million dollars to a local public library in her hometown. Again, not quite sure what the relevance is other than the fact that she worked with this rich, old lady at The New Yorker.
This book proves that perhaps some of us are better off doing the behind-the-scenes work editing rather than writing.
*at this point in time, I wondered to myself whether Mary would’ve approved of me adding an extra ‘s’ to the end of her name or would it have been more appropriate to just put an apostrophe and nothing else, given that her name ends with an ‘s’? (for example: Mary Norris’ Between You & Me…)