Hamptons Epicure: Shopping Nirvana and Mary Norris

"Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen" by Mary Norris is the best book of 2015 so far
"Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen" by Mary Norris is the best book of 2015 so far, Photo: Pixsooz/iStock/Thinkstock

Last Wednesday I took the day off from work at Dan’s Papers headquarters to give a cooking demonstration at Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton. The demo went over very well and it was a lunchtime thing, so I had the whole afternoon in the Hamptons. Of course I checked in at some of my favorite shops on the way home, including The Milk Pail Fresh Market in Water Mill and the Animal Rescue Fund (ARF) shop in Wainscott. The ARF staff agrees with me that a person can’t have too many antique kitchen funnels.

After I got back home to Sag Harbor Village and grew tired of emptying my van, I went for a walk downtown. I checked in at the Dominican Sisters store where I bought some antique lace, I picked up my mail from the post office (no bills!) and ended my sojourn where so many a legendary adventure concludes—at Canio’s Books. There I found true gold.

The new book Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (Norton: 2015) by The New Yorker query proofreader and writer Mary Norris may be the best book out this year. It’s so good that I’m going to tell you more about it despite the fact that Norris will likely find numerous grammatical, punctuation and diction errors throughout the following description of her work. Sorry, Mary Norris, I luv you!

Yes, much of Between You and Me’s content centers on grammar but this is not a treatise on grammar. This is not a dry book or a book that your English teacher would wholly approve of. It is…multifaceted glimpses of and insights into the arcane, behind-the-scenes world of The New Yorker, as well as the inner life of a generalist, told with beguiling humor.

It includes a lot of the good kind of name-dropping. This is the kind that is not forced but inevitable. You get to know fascinating facts about major writers like John Updike and Ian Frazier and the legendary editor William Shawn because these are some of Norris’s regular workplace protagonists. Garrison Keillor, Adam Gopnik and Calvin Trillin also get their star turns.

The title, “Between You and Me,” stems from many a public speakers’ tendency to say “you and I” because it sounds more formal than “you and me.” It is, however, incorrect, as Norris explains. The English language has many rules—many that you’ve probably never heard before are flawlessly explicated in this little gem of a bible of a guide.

I feel like I have a particular connection to Norris because I too sort of fell into proofreading and copyediting from an unrelated background. Norris’s career prior to The New Yorker was rather dairy-centric. She had worked in a cheese factory and as a milkman (aka “milkwoman”). It was particularly gratifying for me to learn that this master grammarian feels as I do about Autocorrect—hates it!

Clearly Norris has interests outside of the world of words. But she demonstrates that the world of words is not a narrow one but a wide and rich one that influences “the real world” in concrete ways. She proves, through a story about her transsexual brother, that pronouns really matter. She demonstrates the life-changing influence that a good pencil can muster. Norris very properly employs both the F-word and the S-word to hilarious effect.

After eating up these delight-filled 203 pages I can only wonder what’s next—was that dinner or dessert, Mary Norris? Please, I want some more.

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