A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
People sometimes wind up working in a place that is far afield from their original degree program or their original intent. Mary Norris, copy editor for The New Yorker for over thirty years, is no exception. She begins, as a fifteen-year-old, by “foot-checking” at a public swimming pool in Cleveland, Ohio. She goes on to earn a degree in English from Douglass College, “the women’s college of Rutgers University” (2). Later, she toils as a self-described “milkman,” because she feels that “milklady” is not feminist enough and “milkmaid” a bit fanciful. She begins her career at The New Yorker by occupying the lowest level possible in what is called the “editorial library.”
I first become acquainted with Norris and her book, as I do many nonfiction books, by way of C-SPAN’s Book-TV featured every weekend. Whether you view Norris live or read her prose about how American English works, she has a number of serious points to make, and she often does so through humorous or comical means. She makes a strong case for why, even as common citizens, we should pay attention to a number of linguistic issues. About “spelling” she says: “A misspelling undermines your authority. And an eye for the misspelled word can give you an edge in the workplace” (30). Norris goes on to tell how catching the misspelling of the word “idiosyncrasy” (sometimes people try to sneak in a “c” at the end) places her in good stead with one of the more curmudgeonly of the magazine’s many curmudgeons. She's promoted, where she further demonstrates her abilities.
While nothing might replace a solid textbook on grammar (and she references a number), Norris’s book provides a refresher course that may be a lot easier and more fun to understand. She discusses homophones, types of clauses and whether they are set off by commas or not. She learns to check her work at least three times. Personally, I find that when I publish a blog post, I must allow myself at least three separate sessions with it (fresh eyes each time), in order to catch (I hope) all of the typos. Even then, I’m sometimes horrified to return to a post published sometime last year and discover an error. Thankfully, unlike with print media, I can go into the bowels of my server and correct the error and update it with little fanfare. I digress.
As much as I like Norris’s book and highly recommend it, it seems to run out of steam toward the end. The chapters about the apostrophe, the asterisk, and her obsession with always possessing a full cache of perfect pencils are less substantive than the first seven chapters of the book. She does end, however, with a touching epilogue about a former colleague, a fellow copy editor, who, upon her death, leaves a modest million dollars to her local library in Connecticut. The gesture seems to say to Norris, at least, that even comma curmudgeons can be generous, if not in this life, then in the next!
NEXT TIME: New Yorker Fiction 2015
Date of Original Post:
11/13/14 — Introduction to My Long-Playing Records
11/20/14 — "My Long-Playing Records" — The Story
11/27/14 — "A Certain Kind of Mischief"
12/04/14 — "Ghost Riders"
12/11/14 — "The Best Mud"
12/18/14 — "Handy to Some"
12/25/14 — "Blight"
01/01/15 — "A Gambler's Debt"
01/09/15 — "Tales of the Millerettes"
01/15/15 — "Men at Sea"
01/22/15 — "Basketball Is Not a Drug"
01/29/15 — "Engineer"
02/05/15 — "Snarked"
02/12/15 — "Killing Lorenzo"
02/19/15 — "The Age I Am Now"
02/26/15 — "Bathed in Pink"
Listen to My Long-Playing Records Podcasts:
03/12/15 — "A Certain Kind of Mischief"
03/26/15 — "The Best Mud"
04/02/15 — "Handy to Some"
04/09/15 — "Tales of the Millerettes"
04/16/15 — "Men at Sea"
04/23/15 — "My Long-Playing Records"
04/30/15 — "Basketball Is Not a Drug"
05/07/15 — "Snarked"
05/21/15 — "Killing Lorenzo"
05/28/15 — "Bathed in Pink"
Also available on iTunes. Watch for more podcasts!