In the summer of 2012, I got a contract for a book about language, based on my experiences of more than 30 years as a copy editor at The New Yorker
. I was thrilled, because now I had license to buy all the books about language that I wanted.
That September, I was driving on Route 9 along the southern border of Vermont, when I spotted a bookstore and slammed on the brakes. Inside, a young woman showed me a small selection of reference books, and I picked out Roy Blount Jr.'s Alphabetter Juice; or, The Joy of Text, a collection of funny takes on all kinds of disputed usages, in alphabetical order. The book was apparently a sequel to one called Alphabet Juice, which I would look for down the road. I didn't need to read these things in order. Could I help it, as a serial devourer of language books, if the universe served up dessert first?
The following winter, during a sojourn on Cape Cod, I stopped in the Provincetown Bookstore — the one that John Waters used to work in — where I found Labels for Locals, by Paul Dickson. Dickson coined the word "demonym" for the noun denoting where a person is from, such as Clevelander, Minneapolitan, Portsmouthian, Glaswegian. He is destined to be cited in Webster's, and his book was fated to come home with me. This geographical sampler, organized alphabetically, turned out to be less appetizing than I expected. A word book is like that proverbial box of chocolates that you do not enjoy so much if you eat them all in one sitting.
At home in New York in the spring, I went to the Union Square branch of a well-known national book chain. The reference books occupy a few discreet shelves on the third floor, behind the games section. There on the bottom shelf was Garner's Modern American Usage, all five pounds of it, which I had seen in a colleague's office and coveted. It would be an indulgence to buy it... but, because I was writing on modern American usage, it was my duty, right? I was attracted by some other titles: The Etymologicon, by Mark Forsyth, a.k.a. the Inky Fool; Opening Pandora's Box, by Ferdie Addis, a collection of stories behind "phrases borrowed from the classics," which I thought would make a nice gift (yeah — for me); and I'm Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears, by Jag Bhalla, a smorgasbord of idioms translated from other tongues, with a refreshing introduction inviting you to skip the introduction. I couldn't make up my mind which of these books to treat myself to... so I bought them all.
While researching Between You and Me, I discovered another source of books on language: the gift shops at the heart of literary pilgrimages. The Noah Webster House, in West Hartford, Connecticut, had a facsimile of Webster's original Blue-Back Speller, which proved an invaluable nugget, and two biographies. (I bought both.) Sunnyside, Washington Irving's home on the Hudson, had a selection designed to cultivate the budding writers among schoolchildren on field trips. There I bought My Grammar and I... Or Should That Be Me?, by Caroline Taggart and J. A. Wines, and Strictly Speaking, by Simon Heffer, a British newspaper editor. I managed to resist a book with the fetching title The Secret Life of Pronouns, because it had diagrams.
In the bookstores of Amherst, where Noah Webster lived while compiling his great dictionary, there was very little on the language shelves (they didn't even carry his dictionary!), but tucked in among the study guides was The Elements of F*cking Style, by Chris Baker and Jacob Hansen, which, at 86 pages, is the equal — at least in length — of the classic by Strunk & White. This is the frat boy's guide to usage, with illustrative chapter titles like "Words Your Bound to Fuck Up" and a section headed "Symmetry is the tits." It's the grammatical equivalent of The Hangover. And yet there is sound advice in it: "Stylistic structures are like brands of Scotch. Pick one and stick with it."
In addition to being a glutton for language books, I also suffer from wanderlust. While working on the book, I spent a week in Amsterdam, and got directions to the Spui, a square near the university that has a bookstore on every corner, and even an extra corner. I surveyed the offerings in the sizable English-language holdings, and bought Spell It Out, by David Crystal, a British spelling authority, even though I know it's crazy to travel with hardcovers. Here, tempting me again, was The Secret Life of Pronouns, but again I resisted. You have to draw the line somewhere.
Every place I went, there were titles that made me drool: Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs, by Katherine Barber, a Canadian; Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, by June Casagrande, of Southern California; On the Dot: The Speck That Changed the World, by Humez and Humez — an entire book about the period! When I saw my favorite title for the third time, I couldn't hold out any longer: I finally bought The Secret Life of Pronouns.
My sister came to visit while I was working on the book, and I heard her tell somebody, "You can't go anywhere in her apartment without tripping over a grammar book." It was impossible to digest everything I had acquired and live long enough to write my own book. But I did it: I finished the book. And yet I am unable to stop grazing the language aisles for tasty and exotic morsels. Am I some kind of addict? Probably. But no intervention is necessary. I have learned the knack of reading such books. It's like when you travel: You run into other travelers, who insist on telling you where to go and what to do. You let them talk, listen earnestly, get as much information as you can. They don't have to know that once you have all gone your separate ways you are going to revert to your original itinerary.