Obsessions come in all shapes and sizes. Some, let’s admit it, are just plain weird. Others can be transformative and life-changing. *
Upon opening a book of confessions to find a first chapter entitled “Spelling is for Weirdos,” I realized that I had found a writer—a self-styled comma queen, no less—with an infectious take on her chosen obsession. This particular confession—which I recently read after it was recommended by another writer—makes for a delightful romp and a good reminder that some obsessions are worth the effort.
In describing the manual How to Sharpen Pencils as “one of the very few books worthy of the dual category “Humor/Reference,” Mary Norris, The New Yorker’s long-time copy editor, could have been discussing her own 2015 work—Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Norris makes sure there is plenty of humor to go along with the useful information on grammar throughout this engaging and educational work. Between You and Me chronicles an obsession of the best kind.
I’ve been on the lookout for books about clarity in writing since the 1980s, after serving on a gubernatorial study commission with Justice George Cochran, a retired member of the Virginia Supreme Court, and a friend from the Shenandoah Valley community of Staunton. Justice Cochran was reviewing my draft of our report and casually remarked that I “certainly must enjoy split infinitives” as I utilized them so often. I also recall that I dangled participles a little too frequently for his taste. Ouch!
In telling her story, Norris says she never set out to be a comma queen. Her first summer job was as a “toe checker” in a Cleveland swimming pool, on the lookout for athlete’s foot. That was followed by stints at the Cleveland Costume Company, as a milk truck driver (she had to drive standing up because it was difficult to reach the pedals when seated), and time packaging mozzarella on the night shift in a cheese factory. Suffice it to say that she brings unique perspectives to her position at The New Yorker and her obsessions with grammar.
Norris has not written a style manual, per se, but rather a memoir of a life lived with an obsession for clear writing. Her memories from The New Yorker and beyond are told with the wit of a natural-born storyteller. I am pretty confident that I’ve never laughed out loud when reading a book on grammar; yet, I did so more than once on the subway while devouring Between You and Me.
On our travels through these confessions, we learn how Noah Webster—another obsessive individual—developed the first American dictionary from his home in New Haven, “where he bought the Benedict Arnold House (it was going cheap.)” Webster is a prominent feature in the “Spelling is for Weirdos” chapter, given his long history with spelling reform. Later in the book, Norris notes that much of what a copy editor does is subjective, such as with the issue of whether to use “that” or “which.” (It depends on what the writer means.) There is a kind and thoughtful story of experiencing a “pronoun transplant” when her brother transgendered to become her sister, making it clear “how deeply pronouns are embedded in our lives.” The book’s title is designed to remind her readers to write (and say) “between you and me” instead of what some assume is the more formal—and thus “obviously” correct—”between you and I.” Norris references an essay about this well-used solecism (and then tells the reader that, “‘Solecism’ is a fancy word for mistake; it refers especially to mistakes in usage that betray the user’s pomposity and ignorance.”) Later chapters are designed to discover “who put the hyphen in Moby-Dick?” (it wasn’t the author) and to recast the old joke as “A dash, a semicolon, and a colon walk into a bar.”
If you want to know how to handle profanity, then read the chapter “F*ck This Sh*t.” Be forewarned, Norris makes liberal use of expletives and euphemisms. If you’d rather not know, then skip over that chapter and turn to the delightful “Ballad of a Pencil Junkie.” Be forewarned here as well, however. You may end up heading to your local stationery or art supply store to buy your own box of Palomino Blackwing 602 pencils after you read the loving description provided by Norris. (Available at PlazaArt with convenient stores throughout the DMV** in Washington, Silver Spring, Bethesda, Rockville, Towson, and Fairfax—not to mention Nashville for my family members in Tennessee. Yes, I’m speaking from experience here.) And if you really go over the cliff, you may follow Norris out to the “Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum in Logan, Ohio,” where she writes, “Only a sign warning that the museum is under surveillance twenty-four hours a day kept me from dancing.”
Obsessions are often viewed as a sign of an unbalanced mind, and that may be true in many instances. In What Do You Think About in the Shower, I remind myself as much as my readers that we must be careful with what we let become critical to us. Between You and Me is the way Mary Norris demonstrates that there are some obsessions which are both delightful and worth the commitment.
Have a good week following your (well-considered) obsession.
More to come…
*Claire and I saw one of those weird obsessions on our cross-country trip in 2015, when we visited the world’s largest twine ball rolled by one person in Darwin, Minnesota. It was so worth it!
**District, Maryland, and Virginia