'Greek To Me' Highlights The Way Ardent Interests Can Enrich A Life

NPR
By Heller McAlpin

In her delightful first book, Between You and Me, a personable fusion of grammar guide and memoir, Mary Norris, longtime "Comma Queen" of The New Yorker's copy editing department, parsed some of the fine points of her vocation. In Greek to Me, she excavates her avocation — a multidecades passion for all things Greek.

While there's some lovely overlap — a fascination with words and usage — we discover that there was much more on her mind during her years on the copy desk than serial commas and the objective case.

In fact, Norris' study of modern and ancient Greek — funded by The New Yorker — "was my therapy in those days, my relief from my native tongue and the pressures at work," she writes.

Why Greek? Blocked by her father from studying Latin at her Cleveland all-girls' Catholic high school, Norris' interest in this other ancient language was awakened in college. She traces her fascination to two mentors: classicist Froma Zeitlin, who turned her on to Greek mythology as an undergraduate at Rutgers; and her New Yorker boss, Ed Stringham, whose ability to "unlock a Greek sentence gave me a Helen Keller moment" — the realization that she, too, could crack this ancient code.

Like her first book, Greek to Me is part personal history, part plunge into word-nerd-dom. It is also a travelogue written by an unabashed philhellene determined to follow the trail of her Greek muses, whether ancient (Homer, Sophocles, Euripides), mythical (Demeter, Aphrodite), or contemporary (British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor). Norris writes that she found it continually thrilling to see "the wealth of stories laid like a series of transparencies over the Old World."

Her wanderlust was in part a reaction to a childhood with two unadventurous parents. About her stay-at-home mother she writes: "I was dubious about following in her footsteps. For one thing, she rarely went anywhere." Norris came to identify with Athena as the unfettered "template for a liberated woman."

So she set off to the land of Homer with her fledgling modern Greek, awkwardly fending off men who couldn't comprehend that a single woman might be traveling alone by choice. "I shot around the Aegean like a pinball, from Crete to Rhodes, Cyprus, Samos, Chios, Lesbos," Norris writes. Over the decades, she made repeat pilgrimages to the Acropolis and developed a fondness for mosaics (reflected in the book's beautiful cover design by Nick Misani), which sent her to "the Holy Grail of Byzantine mosaics: the monastery at Daphne."

Norris is an OK travel writer, but she sparkles more when the subject is language. An unrepentant alphabetophile, she extols the life-changing magic of letters, which she finds far superior to hieroglyphs and emoji in their incomparable ability to communicate in writing. She touts alphabets as "the greatest invention of humankind" — whether the 11th century B.C. Phoenician lineup, utterly lacking vowels and thus a Scrabble-player's nightmare; the ancient Greek, which added vowels; the Russian Cyrillic; or our 26 Roman letters.

Although Norris notes that there's nary "a foreign-looking word" in the works of classicists Edith Hamilton and Edmund Keeley, she can't resist including some un-Anglicized Greek in her book. "How can a book about Greek not strew some Greek around, like breadcrumbs, to lead you somewhere new?" she asks. But don't be put off. She reminds us, "You already know more Greek than you think you do." For example, words beginning with her favorite Greek letter, the trident-shaped psi: psychology, psychosomatic, psychiatrist, psychopath, all derived from Psyche, bride of Eros, who was the son of Aphrodite.

Norris' Greek studies enable her to see her family history in new light, including the death of her older, toddler brother when she was an infant, which sucked the wind out of her mother's maternal sails. In discussing her mixed feelings about her beloved younger brother's gender transition, she notes that "Sometimes you read something at exactly the right time." For her, Sophocles' Antigone "helped me cope with my own role in a changing family."

You'll pick up all sorts of wonderful tidbits from this book. Two favorites: The mythical tribe of warrior women called Amazons, Norris informs us, supposedly had their right breasts cauterized to facilitate archery — thus, a-mazos, without a breast, a far cry from Jeff Bezos' online shopping empire. And "The Greek for newspapers is related to the English 'ephemera': things that last a day."

Greek to Me, an ode to the joy of exercising free rein in one's life, is not as funny as Between You and Me, and Norris is not quite as convincing about the highs of psi as she is about the allure of Blackwing pencils. But what resonates in both books is the way ardent interests can enrich a life. Norris is an uncommonly engaging, witty enthusiast with a nose for delicious details and funny asides that makes you willing to follow her anywhere.

Mary Norris
Culture
Greek To Me