Conjunction junction…

Geekier than presidential cookies  

Between You & Me: Confessions
of a Comma Queen
Mary Norris
3 words:
smart, exuberant, geeky
One part
memoir, one part grammar & punctuation handbook, one part investigative
journalism (she gets to the bottom of the mystery of who added the hyphen to Moby-Dick).
fellow book geeks: rejoice.
Norris is a New Yorker copy editor
who writes about words, her work, and her devotion to the #1 pencil.
I knew I
could be her friend when I read: “…I had ordered so many pencils that Cal Cedar
threw in a free sharpener. I loved having it with me, to sharpen pencils on the
go or to whip out in a café if a friend’s point had gotten dull.” (191)
out a pencil sharpener: I could be that person.
Add to
that some smart explanations about punctuation, and you’ve got yourself a book
nerd’s dream book.
And if
you’re a New Yorker fan, there are
some delightful anecdotes. One of my favorites dealt with the squeamishness of
editor William Shawn: “According to Ian Frazier, the sentence incorporating as
many Shawn taboos as possible was ‘The short, balding man wearing a wig took
his menstruating wife to a boxing match.’” (p. 163)
If you’re
a video type of person, you can also check out her Comma Queen videos.  
Yes. I’m
serious. The first one is about the comma.
I was

In which she reads and eats. And does not stop.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

I impulse-checked-out this book from the library one day, then impulse-bought SunChips that evening, and came home and gorged myself on both.

(This was not planned, the book-and-chips binge. It was all nothing but impulsive. Sometimes things get crazy around here.)

I meant to eat a few chips while I read the first few pages, at which point I’d put down the books and the chips and do something virtuous, productive, and worthy of praise.

Instead, I ate half the bag of chips for dinner (it was one of those big bags, guys) and gulped down half a style manual at the same time.

Yes, this is my life.

The thing is: I was dealing with addictive substances!

Strunk & White pulled me right in, and I kept feeling relief followed by horror, as I realized which guidelines I follow religiously and which I violate like a felon.*

(Cripe: Is it any surprise I needed to comfort myself with chips?)

So here are a few of their edicts that sum things up:

  • “Use definite, specific, concrete language.”  (p. 37)
  • “Write with nouns and verbs.”  (p. 105)
  • “Omit needless words.” (p. 39)

I’ve been doing this one consciously lately, and it feels almost as good as decluttering my house.

Strunk & White sometimes sound cantankerous, but sometimes they just make me smile.

Here’s one instance: “Many nouns have lately been pressed into service as verbs. Not all are bad, but all are suspect.” And then their example: “Be prepared for kisses when you gift your girlfriend with this merry scent.” (p. 82)    (“Gift” as a verb makes me gag. Anyone with me on this?)

And, one of my favorites: “Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and
sometimes nauseating.” (p. 105)

Amen, brothers!


*I’ve probably just broken at least 7 of their rules. And I’m too damn lazy to cite chapter and
verse. If anyone else wishes to do so, have at it. And pass the chips, please.

Of books and bullets

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of
Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford
English Dictionary
by Simon
I know I’m late to
the party on this one. When this book was published in the late ’90s, I
thought, That sounds interesting. Then tons of people read it, and I never did,
till now, when we selected it for a special book club.
And it was
basically what I expected—readable, yet erudite. But a little bit slow-moving,
despite the fact that a crazed murderer was one of the main characters. Interesting
little twist there, eh?
So this book has a
plot that remind me a little bit of The
Devil in the White City
: historic true crime (Devil: creepy serial killer;
Professor: Civil War doctor who shot a man in London) combined with a rather
uplifting story of the undertaking of an unlikely feat that, if successful,
would benefit society (Devil: the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair; Professor: the
Oxford English Dictionary).
The sneaky thing Winchester does in this
book is make you think the professor (James Murray, who led the OED committee)
thought the “madman” (Dr. W.C. Minor) was a doctor at the asylum where he
resided, rather than a patient. But it turns out, Winchester is just letting us in on the
version of the story that was told at the time. In reality, he informs us,
Professor Murray knew Dr. Minor was an inmate all along. Sneaky, say I.
I knew the OED
wasn’t built in a day, and indeed, it wasn’t built in a decade. I didn’t fully appreciate the amount of work that went into
that encyclopedic monster of a dictionary. So now I’ll have a different, warmer
thought every time I walk by it at work, and especially when I consult it. It
has a pretty darn remarkable story of its own, murderer or no.  

Most fun learning in a long while

Stranger Than
Fiction: The Art of Literary Journalism
William McKeen
Here’s exactly how to make a geek girl happy: 
While she’s listening
to an audiobook lecture series about literary journalism, address her as “fun-seeker.”
Professor McKeen, the dear man, does this precise thing, and it gladdened my
heart. Here’s how he starts out some of his lectures: “All right, fun-seekers…”
I mean, those are some encouraging words. I actually do realize
I’m not the life of the party, but being told I’m a fun-seeker when listening to something semi-academic… oh, this
makes me a happy one.
So this audio series had me completely blissing out, because I am all about the literary journalism.
And this guy is so wonderfully smart about the subject, and he’s
engaging as all hell to listen to.
And guys! He’s talking about Tom Wolfe (in his obnoxious white
suit) and Truman Capote (in his purple cape) and George Plimpton (playing football with the Detroit Tigers) and Hunter S. Thompson (getting pummeled by the Hells Angels) and Gay Talese (who would churn
out a whopping single paragraph each day, and then stick it on the wall and
read it from across the room using binoculars). These are some odd ducks.  
And this lecture series puts them all in context and relates them
to one another in a way that is completely fascinating to learn.
If I hadn’t been driving while listening, I’d’ve been jotting down
lots of titles I need to read. Instead, I did the thing where I repeat it to
myself incessantly, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold…” to
try to remember it upon disembarking from the car.

And: happiness. In the final lecture, McKeen gives a list of recommended further reading. 

So, yes. The Modern Scholar series is improving my world. And the
“Stranger Than Fiction” lectures are my favorite of the bunch.

P.D. James… again

Talking about Detective Fiction by
P.D. James

At the same time that I was reading Death Comes to Pemberley, I was listening to this book on audio.
(Actually, I wasn’t precisely reading them both at the very same time, because there is a limit to my multi-tasking
abilities. But I was reading them during the same timeframe.)
And maybe that was just a bit too much P.D. James all at once, or
maybe… (and I actually think this is the reason)… maybe I just got too darn
good an education during library school.
’Cause here’s what I kept thinking all the way through the section
about the Golden Age mystery writers: Yeah, I learned that in library school.
And that, too! So this (audio)book was kinda boring, a little bit.
So I really only perked up and got interested in the new stuff
somewhere around disc 4 (of 4). That’s where James started talking about her
own writing, and that was darn interesting. For example, she learned from
Agatha Christie’s experience (of getting annoyed with Hercule Poirot’s
oddities) not to make her main character too quirky. And she writes about the
inspiration for the settings of some of her books, and that’s good stuff, too.
some of my Agathas
(just don’t look too close: dust bunnies!
…because reading’s way more fun than dusting)
Though, one saving grace: James isn’t as hard on Agatha Christie as
some people are. Sure, Christie’s characters were cardboard cut-outs, but
guys—that lady could write one heck of a plot! During junior high and high
school, I read every darn Agatha Christie mystery I could get my hands on, and
I’ve still got a boatload of them on my shelves today. I’ve a fondness for
those old things.
And James recognizes Christie for her strengths, while also
acknowledging her weaknesses… and rather forgiving them, it seems. 

If you’re a huge P.D. James fan and just can’t get enough of her viewpoint, or if you’re interested in learning the basics of the 19th- and early 20th-century roots of the mystery novel, this book might hold your attention better than it did mine. I just felt like I was watching a re-run of a documentary I’d already seen.