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Inspiration to All

Readers who are also writers may know who Mary Norris is by virtue of her long career as a copyeditor for one of the most prestigious periodicals in English — New Yorker magazine. An irony of being a copyeditor is that while you are the last line of defense against gaffes slipping through into well-considered prose, you don't often enjoy public acknowledgement for your work. Mary Norris has risen above the typical level of anonymity of the copyeditors' world by starring as the "Comma Queen" in a number of YouTube videos, and because of her earlier book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Now she has further distinguished herself with a fascinating and sometimes shockingly personal memoir, Greek to Me, in which she narrates the long history of her fascination with all things Greek: language, culture, history, people. It is a joy to read and an inspiration to anyone who has toyed with the idea, but not yet taken the plunge, of learning a second language.

A girl who grew up Catholic in Cleveland may seem an unlikely candidate for the paths and byways that Norris's life has taken: high-level copy editor by day, and deep diver into the world of Greek in most of her spare time. One of the beauties of her account is how well it all hangs together and convinces the reader that with a bit of motivation and focused effort, life can take you on joy rides that your background might not have allowed you to imagine.

Norris's fascination with the culture of (ancient) Greece began early on, with the typical kind of exposure to Greek mythology that most school children enjoy. Most of us were interested to some degree; Greek deities have superpowers, after all. Mary Norris was enraptured. She made a study of the chief players in the Greek pantheon, and especially by Athena: goddess of wisdom, courage, civilization, justice, strength, strategy, and the arts, among other things. Here was a woman (well: actually a god, but still) who did not take the back seat that was already reserved for young women of Norris's generation.

Later, when she had begun work (in her 20s) at the New Yorker, Norris experienced an "Aha!" moment that initiated her plunge into study of the language. One of the senior editors at the magazine took a book from his shelves (written in Greek) and began reading aloud while simultaneously translating into English. "It had never occurred to me that a person could become literate in a language that was written in a different alphabet," she observes. That was her inspiration for the study of the Greek language (first modern, then ancient), and her crucial step into immersing herself in every way that one can in a foreign culture — actually, two foreign cultures, ancient and modern — with travel, language study, acting (in university productions of ancient Greek dramas), and forays into the long history of Greece.

As inmates of Western Civilization, most of us have notions, ranging from the vague to the greatly detailed, of the profound influence that ancient Greece has on us today. We seldom get through a sentence, probably never get through a paragraph (yes, the word paragraph is from Greek) without using words with Greek roots. Many of the institutions and themes that permeate our lives have roots in Greece and Greek language: democracy, ethics, philosophy, pedagogy, to name a few. We often take all of this for granted. You will be much less inclined to do so after you read Norris's book.

But I don't want to give the impression that the book is a pedantic crawl through early Western Civilization and its enduring influence, because it is anything but that. It is a memoir of a life of adventure, study, and travel. After you read it, you would not hesitate for a minute at the invitation to view Norris's vacation snapshots because you feel like you want to know her better. You'll leave Greek to Me with a much fuller understanding of the persistence of the long tentacles of the ancient Greek world that still entangle us today. But much more than that, you'll walk away with a model of how you can make your life infinitely richer by simply investing the effort in studying a language that you did not speak as a child, and becoming literate in a culture that is not the one that you grew up in.

Norris's dedicated program of Greek immersion has enabled her to do something that all of us may want to do, and that we all probably should do: escape from the confines and implicit limitations that the circumstances of our birth bequeath us. Some are lucky enough to grow up bicultural or bilingual, but for many today — and especially the many whose first language is English — it takes some doing to spring yourself from the culture and mindset of the world's dominant language. As Norris says: "The study of any language... opens the mind, gives you a window onto another culture, and reminds you that there is a larger world out there and different ways of saying things, hearing things, seeing things."

But language study alone will not get you completely out of your head. For that, you need to abandon yourself in the culture of your target language as well. That's not always easy, especially if you're traveling alone, as Norris often did. But listen to what she says: "When you're with someone from home, it is too easy to stay comfortable, in your own idiom and daily regimen and character. You never have the feeling of alienation that is so formative to an experience in a strange place."

That feeling — what the French call dépaysé — is not a reason to avoid travel. Norris convinces us that it is actually the reason to engage in travel. Because the more you experience it, the more you will begin to perceive that there is a way out, a door that will lead you out of the small chamber of your identity and allow you to grow; to enjoy the liberating effect of being able to navigate with ease in more than one culture. I recommend the book to all as a delightful case study into the surprising things you can do if you set your mind to it.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.