Does everyone assume that people who work for The New Yorker are more interesting than the rest of us, or is it just me? Maybe I’ve read too many books by staffers. From Brendan Gill’s Here at The New Yorker, I learned that founding editor Harold Ross enjoyed tossing lit matches around ballrooms and once caught a dancer’s skirt on fire. From Janet Groth’s The Receptionist, I learned that contributor Muriel Spark forbade friends to pour her wine with their left hands, because that’s how the Borgias poisoned their enemies’ drinks. But the latest entry in this tradition, copy editor Mary Norris’ memoirish grammar guide Between You & Me, is a bit of a letdown. The subtitle, “Confessions of a Comma Queen,” suggests that it’s a provocative, revealing book, and Norris does talk about copyediting Philip Roth, George Saunders, and James Salter, but the only real gossip she delivers about the magazine is that her boss, Helen Stark, announces herself over the phone to her husband by saying, “Hi, it’s I.” I’d laugh, but I wouldn’t know how to punctuate it on the page. Ha ha? Ha-ha? Let’s just say, Ha!
Norris spends a lot of time parsing questions on The New Yorker’s website, where she has earned a cult following by using examples from pop culture and her own life to talk about grammar and punctuation. She does the same here, describing how to use commas, apostrophes, and hyphens, and explaining the differences between “that” and “which” and “who” and “whom,” all while digging into The Simpsons, Moby-Dick, and her past. Sometimes the connections work. It’s moving when she uses her relationship with a trans sibling to show “how intimately and deeply pronouns are embedded in our lives.” But too often her stories about the odd jobs she has worked or the rare pencils she hoards aren’t colorful enough to cement the rules in your mind. Her biggest sin? As The New York Times huffily pointed out, a few copyediting mistakes appear in the book. Turns out she’s just as mortal as the rest of us. B–