Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen
W. W. Norton & Company, April 6, 2015
Kindle edition $11.49, Amazon hardcover $15.26
Between You & Me is a lot of fun for a language lover like me. However, Mary Norris, a copy editor at the New Yorker, has written a memoir cum style guide that covers a lot of territory.
I wrote last week about her defense of the serial comma. And while she writes about the hyphen, the semicolon, and the diaeresis (the two dots over the second vowel in such words as “naïve” and “reëlection,” which most of us mistakenly call an umlaut), she also gives us a some autobiography. We learn that she drove a milk delivery truck after college. She digresses from a discussion of gender in language to a recollection of the struggles that her transgender sibling faced.
Norris describes the processes used in her job and the hierarchy of dictionaries referred to in her department. (Sadly, the American Heritage was nowhere on the list.) She talks about her preference for No. 1 pencils and her frustration as they became harder and harder to find in the face of the far more popular No. 2. She writes about her relationship with her copyediting mentors and supervisors Eleanor Gould and Lu Burke.
Between You & Me is a fun and light read, but you’ll learn a few things as well.
Sometimes YouTube can yield a pleasant surprise. I was looking for something else and I came across this beautiful performance of Better World by Ryan Cayabyab and arranged by GP Eleria. Enjoy!
In case you were wondering, what I was actually looking for was an old favorite of mine, this Limeliters classic.
I’m talking about left turns literally, not metaphorically.
In the Bay Area, from Redwood City to Gilroy, which represents the northern and southern extremes of the places I lived (and, interestingly, the first and the last as well), most intersections that were at all busy had protected left turns. In Gilroy, where Terry and I spent seventeen years, only the quietest intersections that had signals did not have protected left turns. There was one notable exception to that, which was from the very busy east/west First Street onto the quite busy north/south Church street. I simply avoided making a left turn there.
Here in Hemet it is a different matter. While there are a lot of protected left turns, there are a number of busy intersections that don’t have protected left turns. I haven’t used that part of my brain in a very long time. The irony is that it was here in Hemet where I learned to drive. And at that time there were almost no protected left turns.
Nonetheless, it has been forty-one years. I need to get that area of my brain sharp again.
There is a new documentary out about Tower Records called All Things Must Pass. It has received some very good reviews. Since it has been very much in limited release I am hoping that it will be available on Netflix soon.
Seeing the review in the Los Angeles Times reminded Terry and me of our experience with Tower. During my Claremont days in the 1970s I believe the only Tower store in the vicinity was in Westwood. I think I visited it a time or two.
During my years of exile in Texas and Oklahoma I only visited a Tower Records once, in 1982 or thereabouts, when I was visiting my friend Alison in Palo Alto and we went up to San Francisco. I bought what was then the new Joan Baez album, Honest Lullaby. Needless to say it was on vinyl.
After I moved to the Bay Area in 1985, Tower was very accessible. There was one store in San Jose, on the border with the city of Campbell, near the Pruneyard shopping center. There was another in Los Altos, just across the Mountain View border.
Everyone, of course, remembers their huge selection. Terry and I both remember the separate, soundproof classical area. In the days of vinyl they had a great selection not only of the major labels, Deutsche Grammophon, RCA Red Seal, Columbia Masterworks, and so forth, but also of the budget lines: Nonesuch, Vox, and Turnabout.
Tower Records has been gone since 2006, but I still miss them and I still remember them fondly.
Have you seen the new series The Muppets Tuesdays on ABC? If you have, let me know what you think. If not, let me warn you that it is nothing like The Muppet Show from the 1970’s.
The premise is that Miss Piggy has her own late-night talk show, Up Late with Miss Piggy. Kermit is the producer, which makes things a bit tense, as Kermit has broken up with Miss Piggy. The show uses a mockumentary style that includes segments where the characters speak directly to the camera. Where my warning comes in is that the humor is absolutely adult. Very funny, but definitely adult. Come up with a good excuse not to allow the younger kids to see this.
For the rest of us it’s a hoot. And just as with the original series from the 1970’s, the show attracts big stars. We recently saw Reese Witherspoon and Kristin Chenoweth appear. And the stars are not afraid to make fun of themselves. Reese Witherspoon pointed out that “I did all of my own walking” in the movie Wild. Kristin Chenoweth finds herself being dumped by the house band in the middle of the desert after mucking up the group’s internal dynamic.
And Miss Piggy? She is as mean-spirited and diabolical as ever. If not more so.
You know me well enough to know that I don’t watch much television other than cooking shows, but the Muppets is a delight not-so-guilty pleasure that Terry and I share.
I haven’t seen the phrase “there are two kinds of people in the world” in a very long time, and that is probably a Good Thing. I would like to resurrect it, though, if only briefly, and only for the purposes of this specific blog entry.
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who use the serial comma and those who don’t.
I am one of those who do use the serial comma, often called the Oxford comma. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, 5th edition, whose advice I generally like, tells us, however, “In general, do not use a comma before and or or in a series.” In a physical newspaper (as opposed to the online edition), where every pica of space counts, that probably is practical advice. But it is not advice that I am inclined to follow.
The Chicago Manual of Style, on the other hand, advises, “Items in a series are normally separated by commas. When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities, since it prevents ambiguity.” That is my approach.
Mary Norris in her book Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (a review is forthcoming) has some fun with this. She went online and found examples where omitting the comma before the and did create some amusing ambiguity.
This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
I had seen this one before, but I have to say that the thought of the author’s parents being Ayn Rand and God is a truly frightening prospect.
And there was the country-and-western singer who “was joined by his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings.”
I absolutely support gay marriage, but I don’t believe that either Kris Kristofferson or Waylon Jennings is gay, much less married at different times to the same male country singer. Certainly the author was trying to tell us that the country singer was joined on stage by four people, not by two.
My friend Farrell shared the meme below on Facebook. It’s a good graphical explanation of the value of the serial, or Oxford, comma.
Let’s work to keep the serial comma alive.
I really should have used this last week, as Sunday was All Saints’ Day. At the time, though, I wasn’t paying attention to the calendar. I have shared this performance with you before, but it is a magnificent one, and this great Ralph Vaughn Williams anthem deserves all the horsepower that can be put behind it.
In any case, enjoy!
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
Riverhead Books (September 22, 2015), 285 pages
Kindle edition $11.99, Amazon hardcover $13.72
From the author of Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things, Big Magic is part paen to creativity and part cheerleading self-help book encouraging readers to move forward with their creative process.
Gilbert emphasizes that creativity is not about money or fame. She writes about a friend who wanted to get back into figure skating later in life. She tells us:
Please note that my friend did not quit her job, did not sell her home, did not sever all her relationships and move to Toronto to study seventy hours a week with an exacting Olympic-level skating coach. And no, this story does not end with her winning any championship medals. It doesn’t have to. In fact, this story does not end at all, because Susan is still figure skating several mornings a week—simply because skating is still the best way for her to unfold a certain beauty and transcendence within her life that she cannot seem to access in any other manner. And she would like to spend as much time as possible in such a state of transcendence while she is still here on earth. That’s all. That’s what I call creative living.
The rest of the book builds on this. It’s not about money, fame, or glory. It’s about doing creative work because you want to. Gilbert tells us: “Here’s what I’m getting at, dear ones: You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life.”
She reminds us that while we experience “fairy dust” at times, “Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous, disciplined labor. I sit at my desk and I work like a farmer, and that’s how it gets done.”
This is not a book of great substance. But if you want a shot in the arm to encourage you to get back into the creative process, it is well worth the price.
I recently listened to a lecture series from The Great Courses entitled Heroes and Legends: The Most Influential Characters of Literature. It’s good stuff, and the range of heroes the lecturer, Thomas A. Shippey, covers is impressive. He includes Cressida of Troilus and Cressida at one end of the timeline and Harry Potter at the other. I recently wrote about the series.
In the lecture on frontier heroes, in which Shippey discusses James Fenimore Cooper’s Nathaniel Bumppo and Larry McMurtry’s Woodrow Call and Gus MacRae, he uses the word “imaginary” as a noun. The course guidebook says:
In literary criticism, the word “imaginary” is used as a noun to mean a collective picture of an era derived from books, films, television, and so on. The most powerful imaginary of our time is the Wild West, encompassing gunslingers, wagon trains, rustlers, and, above all, cowboys and Indians.
In the actual recorded lecture I believe Shippey suggests something to the effect that this is almost the only useful term created by literary criticism.
None of the three online dictionaries that I use (American Heritage, Merriam-Webster, and Oxford) offer a definition for “imaginary” as a noun, and I am generally not in favor of making adjectives into nouns, but I rather like this one.
I am tempted to talk about the imaginary of King Arthur and Camelot, or of Robin Hood and Sherwood Forest, or Harry Potter and Hogwarts, but that would be a misuse of the term. According to Wikipedia, an imaginary “is the set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols common to a particular social group and the corresponding society through which people imagine their social whole.” The article quotes John Thompson, who says the imaginary is “the creative and symbolic dimension of the social world, the dimension through which human beings create their ways of living together and their ways of representing their collective life.”
So it has to be the real world.
Still, it can be a useful concept, I think. As one who is very fond of the 1970s, I would easily buy into an imaginary of the 1970s United States, even though that would probably reflect more of what I want to remember than what actually happened.
But then our collective imaginary of the Wild West certainly reflects fiction much more than reality.
So it goes.
Up in Gilroy I would sometimes program a jazz set on the CD player for a Friday or Saturday dinner. The CD player allows me to program up to 32 tracks, which would take us through dinner and a good portion of the evening.
On a recent Friday Terry asked me to program a set. I went to our CD rack and realized that we had made a terrible, horrible mistake. I used to have a fairly extensive collection of jazz CD’s. I would fill three 25-CD blocks in the CD player and still have a lot of jazz CD’s in their jewel cases on the shelf.
Somehow, in the chaos of the staging and getting ready to move, we had gotten rid of the vast majority of our CD collection. What’s worse is that it was indiscriminate. There is no rhyme or reason to what is left. We even got rid of three custom collections that I had burned.
There’s a lot happening when you’re trying to sell your house, move 400 miles away, and completely change your lifestyle. It’s easy to get overzealous in your trips to Goodwill or Salvation Army.
I hope the thrift shop customers are enjoying those CD’s. I certainly miss them.