Tag Archives: The New Yorker

The Comma Queen

I’ve written before about how Mary Norris’s job at the New Yorker is one I not-so-secretly would prefer to the job I actually have. An excerpt of her forthcoming book (Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen) appeared in this week’s issue of the magazine. The whole article is just cool (someone else has already called it “exquisite”); in it she says delightfully witty things like “The serial comma is a pawn in the war between town and gown.”

confessions_comma_queenAnd, her book is the #1 new release in the etymology category on Amazon! Etymology was another career-choice-other-than-accounting that I sometimes fantasized about. This was probably around the time I was reading Beowulf — Seamus Heaney’s version with the side-by-side Old English and modern English — for a Medieval Literature class.

Even if you don’t get as excited about grammar and punctuation as I do, you should go check out this article. All the discussion about how meaning is affected by how we choose to say things — simple comma placement and questions of authorial intent — this is stuff I love to think about. In her own words:

To understand how the language works, though — to master the mechanics of it — you have to roll up your sleeves and join the ink-stained wretches as we name the parts.

Because there’s nothing cooler (to me) than knowing exactly what you mean to say, understanding how to say it, and saying exactly that.


Thank You, Internet!

Wow, Internet. I’m not sure what to say. It’s been a Day for me and my little blog.

When I got to work this morning, I logged in to check my blog stats, as I sometimes do in the mornings, not expecting to really see anything exciting…when I saw I had something like 100 page views already, just for today. That totally blew away my previous single-day record from 2011 of 46 views in a single day (at least half of which I’m convinced was spam).

“Whoa!” I thought to myself, and scrolled down to see the referrer links to see where all of you wonderful, amazing people were coming from. That’s when I saw http://www.newyorker.com in my list of referrers. “Is this a joke?” was the foremost thought in my mind when I cautiously clicked on the New Yorker link (because, often, you just don’t know, am I right, Internet?).

And then I saw this:



Whereupon I had to instantly call all of my near and dear and tell them the news in vocal registers completely inappropriate for the workplace. There may have also been semi-hysterical laughter and spontaneous hugging.

It’s really just been a crazy, crazy day for me and my little book blog. People have even tweeted links to my blog! Including Rebecca Mead, the one who inspired me to read Middlemarch in the first place!

tweetsAs of this evening, I’ve had more than 1,000 views on my blog today.

So really, I just want to say thank you, Internet, and thank you, New Yorker! I feel hugely honored that you all took the time to read my silly little emoji post, and even share it. Come back soon? (xoxo)

Final Thoughts on Middlemarch

I promise I’ll be done talking about Middlemarch soon, guys. But, now that I’ve finished it and I have a month’s worth of perspective on the novel (which is to say I’ve been unabashedly reading Middlemarch‘s weight in books the New Yorker would sneer at), it’s time to revisit the reason I read it in the first place: Rebecca Mead’s article in the New Yorker circa February 2011, in which she compared George Eliot to Jane Austen and, after calling Jane Austen “cruel”, ultimately said that George Eliot’s work was superior.

I had bangs when I started reading Middlemarch.

I had bangs when I started reading Middlemarch.

Approximately two and a half years later, I finally feel like I can answer the questions that Ms. Mead’s article posed for me, which hinge around the following quote from her article:

Eliot admired Austen…but George Eliot…went on to surpass her precursor. She is as adept as Austen at the ironic depiction of high and middle-class society…But Eliot’s satire, unlike Austen’s, stops short of cruelty. She is inveterately magnanimous, even when it comes to her most flawed characters; her default authorial position is one of pity…A reader marvels at Jane Austen’s cleverness, but is astonished by George Eliot’s intelligence.

The short version of my answer is: yes and no.

On the question of Eliot’s having surpassed Austen: I suppose this is an obvious yes, if you judge “surpassing” to be established by the number of pages published, or the number of words used, or even the volume of their respective bodies of work. Eliot published 7 novels, various poems, and a number of other works; Austen published only 6 novels, 1 novella, and died with two novels unfinished. However, Austen’s works have an enduring charm and popularity that I wouldn’t judge Eliot’s works to be close to reaching.

On the question of Eliot’s inveterate magnanimity: On this point, Ms. Mead and I actually agree. Nearly all of even the most odious characters in Middlemarch are afforded authorial asides which sympathetically outline the defects of their personalities and their weaknesses, in a voice that resonates with pity. Even Casaubon’s insecurities she is able to describe sympathetically:

…a perpetual suspicious conjecture that the views entertained of him were not to his advantage…The tenacity with which he strove to hide this inward drama made it the more vivid for him; as we hear with the more keenness what we wish others not to hear…there was strong reason to be added, which he had not himself taken explicitly into account — namely, that he was not unmixedly adorable. He suspected this, however, as he suspected other things, without confessing it, and like the rest of us, felt how soothing it would have been to have a companion who would never find it out.

Or consider her depictions of Rosamund’s disappointments in married life:

The Lydgate with whom she had been in love had been a group of airy conditions for her, most of which had disappeared, while their place had been taken by every-day details which must be lived through slowly from hour to hour, not floated through with a rapid selection of favorable aspects.

That she made Rosamund’s shallowness simultaneously sympathetic and even relatable is certainly notable. And in all honesty, I did enjoy parts of Middlemarch very much: I learned many new words (sciolism, batrachian, energumen, to name a few); I sometimes laughed aloud; and occasionally I even stopped in my tracks to savor something she’d written:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

But on the question of Austen appearing cruel by contrast to Eliot: I would still never describe my Jane Austen as being cruel.

“A reader marvels at Jane Austen’s cleverness, but is astonished by George Eliot’s intelligence.” Why does it seem like there is a value judgment attached to those words — clever versus intelligent? I would argue that both authors were both clever and intelligent, and that the crux of the argument is not which is better, but rather, can — even should — the two be compared?

To my way of thinking, George Eliot and Jane Austen wrote entirely different types of books. If you took one of Jane Austen’s novels, and loaded it down with social issues and a host of major and minor characters à la any Charles Dickens novel, and layered over the top of it a heavy authorial voice which occasionally verged on preachy regarding those social issues, you might get something like George Eliot.

Jane Austen was a storyteller. The point of her books is not to study social issues of the day, like the education of women, or the ills of poverty. In her books, she introduces us to characters, people we identify with and recognize in ourselves and around us even today, and tells us a story about those characters. I fear I will never understand the voices in this world which discount the good telling of a good story as being beneath, as being somehow less than, somehow inferior. Story is powerful. Stories teach.

I think A. L. Kennedy says it better than I ever could in one of her blogs on writing for the Guardian newspaper:

…because I have an interest, of course, in story — in pure story and how powerful it can be…they aim to transport, to suspend reality, and they do. They penetrate and delight and return us to ourselves, slightly altered, slightly more than we thought we could be… The story is both an unlooked-for beauty and a lovely misdirection and…it means that, for a while, we can believe in miracles and people who’ve never existed and a range of exhilarating and puzzling and moving possibilities… I like to stare at the undeniable power behind it all — the huge amoral force of story. We are the ones who chose to be dark or light, chose the stories we tell ourselves and others: in work, in play, in love…in all our lives.

Which seems like the best words, really, to end this on.

C What You’ve Been Missing

I spotted this on my way out of work the other day.

One of several electric vehicle charging stations.

One of several electric vehicle charging stations.

I work for the local utility company. Its principal business line is electricity. This is one label you’d really expect them to get right.

Author’s Note: When I was young, one of the occupations I thought of pursuing when I grew up was that of editor. It seemed like the second-best thing to writing books, really. As a solid speller in my elementary days, and possibly notorious in college for rewriting everyone else’s paper sections in those dreaded group papers, I suppose I thought I’d be good at it. Given my staunch preference for the Oxford comma, the only publication whose policies I feel I could enforce with any personal integrity would be the New Yorker, and I’m pretty sure they’re not interested in hiring a hopefully-former accountant / unemployed librarian as an editor or fact checker (although I believe I make a very good case for the attention to detail required for success in auditing predisposing me to excel at those jobs, and that’s not even touching on my of-old avid enthusiasm for the Oxford comma and — more recently — the dieresis).

A while ago, my sister suggested I start a series on my blog of misspells, grammatical errors, and other editing failures, committed by those who ought to know better. I dedicate the series to my sister, who suggested it, and a certain professor in grad school whose attention to our grammar, punctuation, and adherence to any style guide was excruciating. This is the first of those posts. If you’re a fan and want to see more, let me know in the comments!

Words. I love them. That is all.

Last week, The New Yorker‘s Culture Desk launched a game show via social media, called Questioningly. The first question asked was:

“If you could eliminate a single word from the English language, what would it be? Reasons can vary—overuse, etymological confusion, aesthetic ugliness—and need not be explained. Simply propose a word…” (Read more here.)

I was a little disappointed that the first I’d heard of this contest was via my facebook feed today, when they announced the results. I thought Mr. Greenman’s post describing the contest results was quite funny, so I hope you’ll pop over and read it. And I didn’t love it only because he used the abbreviation “cf.” Or because of his defense of the word “actually”. Or because the “runaway un-favorite” was “moist”, a word that I and my friends have discussed at length for its grossness. I loved those parts, but I also loved it because people participated! People cared! People voted for their most-hated words!

I love words. I wanted to study literature and linguistics in college, but for a variety of too-boring-to-tell reasons, I didn’t even explore it once I got there. Still, I feel little thrills of joy when I’m reading and someone surprises me with their words.

But while I love words, I guess I don’t love all of them, because I definitely agreed with a number of the nominations. Fecund, phlegm and all forms thereof. Irregardless, which, when I discovered the article at work today, sparked much discussion and inspired a coworker’s vow to use the term as much as possible in the foreseeable future. It’s not a word. And to all people who use it as a word, I would just like to say, once and for all, that because it’s a double negative, I don’t think it means what you’re thinking it means.

Here are some words I would have nominated:

  1. puss: Every time I read this word in one of Barbara Pym’s novels, I consciously replace it in my head with kitty.
  2. remediate: Because people use this word with me all the time at work, when what they really mean is “remedy.”
  3. chuckle and any variations thereof: The New Yorker says I don’t need a reason.
  4. nugget: State Spelling Bee, circa 1993-ish. Plus, I just don’t like it.

What words would you have nominated?