Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen

Mary Norris (W. W. Norton & Company, 2019), 227pp, £14.99 (hardback)
ISBN 978 1 324 00127 0

Reviewed by Sara Donaldson

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When I first picked up Greek to Me, I’d heard the name Mary Norris, but couldn’t quite remember where she fitted in to the editorial world. Within minutes I realised that this was Mary Norris from The New Yorker, and that this was, hopefully, going to be a wonderful book to read.

It’s a very tactile book. On first picking up the little hardback, with its beautifully textured and metalled cover, you can’t help but move the mosaic-like illustration into the light. With each movement tiny ‘tiles’ reflect silver and gold, sparkling like the Mediterranean adventures you’re going to read about within. It’s a small detail, but one that adds to the enjoyment of picking up the book each time you settle down to read it.

This book isn’t a book about editing, grammar or how to do the best for your clients. It’s a memoir about how Mary did the best for herself, with the help of mentors and a supportive employer. It’s really a love letter to all things Greek. You’ll walk with Mary through her education, settle into The New Yorker’s copy department with her, then follow her through her adventures. Along the way she’ll teach you some Greek.

Mary has a wonderful way with words. She guides the reader through Greek language, art, mythology and culture as we follow her on her solo adventures. Dotted throughout is a peek into how the Greek language has infiltrated modern life, how ancient and modern Greek have converged and how it’s really, really easy to say the wrong thing and embarrass both yourself and the locals you’re trying to impress.

There are occasional editorial insights though – just as I’d spent a while tidying up a manuscript I settled down to read and came across this gem: ‘Wide spacing has its charms, not the least of which is that it creates jobs for people who remove the extra space’. A dubious charm perhaps? Many of her ponderings, though, are strikingly funny … who does clean the tub when the goddess of love has risen from her bath? And when a great hero of the Trojan War is mostly remembered as ‘an all-purpose warrior against dirt’ surely the modern world has gone too far?

I don’t want to give any spoilers, but would encourage anyone with even a mild interest in Greek and language to read Mary’s book. I admire her tenacity – she could so easily have given up on such a difficult language, and travelled with other tourists on package tours. Instead she found mentors and teachers, studied at university and went on solo trips. She traced the birth of our alphabet, searched for Aphrodite’s bathing spots and skinny dipped in secluded coves.

It’s a brilliant memoir which took me away from the grey British weather for a while. Be warned though – you may want to book a holiday and take up learning Greek once you’ve read it.

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