November Issue 2015

By | Books | Published 4 years ago

The title of Mary Norris’ memoir, Between You and Me, is the first indication that this is not your typical autobiography. The reference is a knowing wink to one of the most common errors editors come across in the English language. Norris, who spent 30 years as a proofreader at The New Yorker, says the grammatical error which most rankled her during her career was using “between you and I” instead since writers imagined it to be grander than the more prosaic — and correct — usage of me.

As much as a memoir, Between You and Me is a how-to guide for would-be writers. The unorthodox combination works better than expected, mostly because Norris, while being a lover of the English language, is not pretentious about it.  She doesn’t mind splitting infinitives, starting sentences with “and” or “but” or ending them with prepositions if she feels it sounds better.

One associates The New Yorker with old-school schoolmarms clinging to a dying tradition — last true believers in a world of heretics. This is the publication, after all, which still insists on spelling out years rather than using numerals, refuses to forsake the dieresis in coöperate and hyphenates de-luxe. Norris does not buy into such archaism. Her thoughts on the use of modern language — emoticons, abbreviations and such — are refreshingly pragmatic. She draws a historical parallel between writers like Henry James about whom (a word dear to Norris), she asserts, used the semi colon to signify a raised eyebrow, with the use of smileys in text messages.

This is not to say that Norris has ditched the old ways altogether. On the matter of the aforementioned “whom,” Norris has this to say: “Whom may indeed be on the way out, but so is Venice, and we still like to go there.” She also devotes considerable space to her pencil obsession, describing her favourites over the years, as wistfully as one looking past at lost loves. She may be the only person, dead or alive, who knows of the existence of a pencil sharpeners’ museum. Norris has also not yet bought into the usage of non-gendered pronouns, calling the constant need to say “he or she” inelegant.

The best parts of Between You and Me are easily those dealing with language, its usage and its beauty, and the inside stories she provides about legendary The New Yorker writers like Pauline Kael and Philip Roth, who once even propositioned her.

Norris handles the frustrations of her unglamorous job with humour and grace, saying, “The image of the copy editor is of someone who favours a rigid consistency, a mean person who enjoys pointing out other people’s errors, a lowly person who is just starting out on her career in publishing and is eager to make an impression, or, at worst, a bitter, thwarted person who wanted to be a writer and instead got stuck dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s and otherwise advancing the careers of other writers. I suppose I have been all of these.”

Where the book is less successful is in dealing with her pre-copy-editing life, where she worked a series of menial jobs like checking t

he cleanliness of swimmers’ feet. Ultimately, the slog of reading through those early pages is more than compensated by the delights to come.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s November 2015 issue.

Nadir Hassan is a Pakistan-based journalist and assistant editor at Newsline.