Greek to Me

The best book of the year!

Yes, I know that the year is only half over, but I’m still going to nominate Mary Norris’s Greek to Me as the best book of the year. Equal parts travelogue, memoir, mythology, and language exploration, its enthusiasm will enthrall anyone who has the least bit of interest in Greece (ancient and modern) and the Greek language (ancient and modern).

Norris, a well-known New Yorker copyeditor, is a wonderful writer who makes the reader want to keep reading. Maybe she will even make you want to learn ancient Greek. At the very least she will make you want to visit Greece if you haven’t done so already. I’ve only been there three times, and that’s not enough. (It isn’t Italy, but at least it’s in second place, IMHO.) The flavors of the old world and the modern world permeate this non-fiction account, which makes the old come alive and the new fit into history.

Greek to Me also contains a lot about linguistic matters at a level that requires no previous academic knowledge. That aspect of the book focuses on things like familiar vocabulary, the alphabet, a tiny bit of grammar, and punctuation. She even writes about topics that have annoyed dozens of my colleagues and students, like this:

Spacing is still controversial. Thought in modern typography it is generally agreed that one space after a period is enough, there are people who would sooner have their thumbs cut off than give up their right to double-space. Copy editors can guess the age of a writer by his or her typing habits. Those who double-space after a period went to college in the late sixties, early seventies, or earlier, and used a portable typewriter that was a gift from their parents. The New Yorker, in the days of hot type, put two spaces after a period, but when word processors came in, around 1994 AD, the first thing the editorial staff learned was “one space after a period.” Wide spacing has its charms, not the least of which is that it creates jobs for people who remove the extra space.

You see Norris’s lively style here, but it’s the content that I want to comment on. I was someone who “went to college in the late sixties,” did indeed use a portable typewriter that was a gift from my parents, and started out double-spacing — but I learned better. If you still double-space, you can too. It just means that you learned to type on a typewriter, or your typing teacher learned to type on a typewriter, or their teacher… No professionally written manuscript commits that error (open any random professionally printed book, and check).

OK, I’ll get off that horse now. Just read the book, learn Greek, and visit Greece!




p. 36: 2 spaces after period??????

Categories: Books, Linguistics, Travel