A Passion for Punctuation Meets a Love for All Things Greek

When Norris was a baby in Cleveland, a 2-year-old sibling died, and she grew up feeling irrationally guilty about that death. One of her most significant memories is of a college course in Greek mythology that somehow released her from this anxiety, providing her with the wherewithal to leave “girlhood for the life of a woman.” This longing for the magic of the ancient world repeated itself years later when, while taking a course in Greek tragedy at Columbia, she became convinced that whatever she read in that class “would put my own troubles in perspective.” At the end of her book, Norris visits the famous Dafni Monastery, which contains a particularly great Christ mosaic. If ever there was a moment when her infatuation with Greece and all things Greek seems to climax, this is it. The effect on her of that mosaic was almost miraculous. “My gratitude has made me easier to get along with ever since,” she writes.

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Norris was about 30 when she took her first trip to Greece, came home besotted and lowered herself into the ocean of Greek studies available in New York City: “In the years that followed, I swung back and forth between modern Greek and ancient Greek, cramming modern Greek before a trip, returning to ancient Greek when I got home.” At one point she even moved to Astoria, the Greek-American neighborhood in Queens, embedding herself among living Greeks so that every waking hour away from her office she’d be surrounded by either the demotic Greek of the street or the Greek of Thucydides in her armchair.

In a small disquisition on the development of written language in ancient Greece, Norris tells us that the Greeks wrote words as run-ons: JUSTIMAGINETHAT. Spacing was “a great leap forward.” As was the invention of Norris’s beloved comma, which comes from the Greek word komma, and was invented to further clarify meaning. She also makes the interesting observation that with the advent of social media and online publication we seem to be regressing to those long-ago times by trading in “turnable pages sewn between covers” for scrolling, and by doing away with vowels, “now playfully omitted, as if they took up too much space.” She mourns the centuries-long effort at developing punctuation for the sake of ever greater clarity, now being abandoned, day by day, in our benighted contemporary culture. This observation is only a reminder of what we all know; nevertheless, it stunned me.

Two loves in particular dominate “Greek to Me”: the Acropolis and Homer, both of which Norris returns to so religiously that she often ends a passage about one or the other on a joking note, to avoid, I presume, sinking into sentimentality or self-dramatization. She tells us that one of the things she most loves about Homer is the ancient poet’s use of epithets (here meant only as an identifying trait, not a term of contempt). “Gray-eyed Athena” especially appeals to Norris because she herself has gray eyes. The passage ends: “The word that Homer relies on for Athena is glaukopis. … I would gladly step up to the epithet of Athena, but the form for a driver’s license does not have a box to check for the eye color ‘glaucous.’”

The book is structured not as a scholarly guide but as a presentation of the variousness of Norris’s Greek experiences held together by stretches of prose devoted, on the one hand, to her memories of early family life in Irish Catholic Cleveland and, on the other, to life on the copy desk at The New Yorker. Collectively, these strands lend the work a tone that suggests girlishness (Norris is 67).

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