Monday, April 25, 2016

61 Books: #21

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. And now that my blog is an infrequent thing, I'll just post one book report at a time.

So, herewith:

21.  Mary Norris, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2015) (4/23/16)
This amusing bit of light reading is by a longtime copy editor (or as one author called her, "prose goddess") at the New Yorker. It's chock full of interesting language-oriented tidbits, of course—the proper use of the subjunctive or of that vs. which, dangling modifiers, pronouns (he/she or they? I or me?), and of course the ever-fascinating comma, dash, apostrophe, and semicolon. Ever fascinating, that is, if you, like me, happen to love the minutiae of grammar and punctuation.

As a freelance copy editor myself, I was interested to read about old historical controversies or innovations, and ongoing conundrums that still, and probably always will, stymie even the best writers. Norris's six-page excursion into James Salter's comma usage in a few sentences of his novel Light Years was revelatory, in a very, very subtle way.

Norris is salty and opinionated and has plenty of humorous anecdotes to share, both to illustrate language use and to describe life at the intellectual bastion that is the New Yorker. But I would not recommend this book to just anyone.

That said, pretty much anyone would have to find Norris's description (in a chapter on pencils) of the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Logan, Ohio, if not riveting, at least engaging. "The [3,441 one-of-a-kind] sharpeners are arrayed behind glass, on glass shelves, according to category: Transportation, Music (harp, gramophone, banjo, accordion, organ), Military, Space, History (the Colosseum, the Empire State Building—that's one that I have!—the Golden Gate Bridge, Christ the Redeemer with arms outspread . . .), the Zodiac, Dogs, Cats, Christmas, Easter. . . . There were a few technical categories, including dual-hole sharpeners (some in the shape of noses—ouch) and sharpeners for flat pencils, the kind carpenters use. I took as many pictures as I could. Only a sign warning that the museum is under surveillance twenty-four hours a day kept me from dancing." (It turned out the surveillance was a thing of the past. She could have danced.)

Norris's writing style occasionally grated on me—was it a little too New York brash? (the very first sentence of the book, for example: "Let's get one thing straight right from the beginning: I didn't set out to be a comma queen")—but overall I enjoyed the journey and learned some interesting tidbits that, sadly, I will now no doubt proceed to forget immediately.

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