Review: Greek to Me by Mary Norris - a joyful exploration of Greek language and culture

Friday, 26 July 2019

Greek to Me by Mary Norris
Released: 2nd April 2019
Published by: Text Publishing
Genre: Travel memoir
Source: Publisher
Pages: 240
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Comma Queen returns with a buoyant book about language, love, and the wine-dark sea.

In her New York Times bestseller Between You & Me, Mary Norris delighted readers with her irreverent tales of pencils and punctuation in The New Yorker’s celebrated copy department. In Greek to Me, she delivers another wise and funny paean to the art of self-expression, this time filtered through her greatest passion: all things Greek. Greek to Me is a charming account of Norris’s lifelong love affair with words and her solo adventures in the land of olive trees and ouzo.

Along the way, Norris explains how the alphabet originated in Greece, makes the case for Athena as a feminist icon, goes searching for the fabled Baths of Aphrodite, and reveals the surprising ways Greek helped form English. Filled with Norris’s memorable encounters with Greek words, Greek gods, Greek wine—and more than a few Greek men—Greek to Me is the Comma Queen’s fresh take on Greece and the exotic yet strangely familiar language that so deeply influences our own.
Thank you to Text Publishing for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

The study of any language - Greek, Latin, Hebrew, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Taino - 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. It always distresses me to hear someone say, "I'm no good at foreign languages", or demand "English for me, dear." In learning a foreign language, you have to humble yourself, admit your ignorance, be willing to look stupid. We learn a language by making mistakes. 

For those of us who aren't basking in the Mediterranean glow, out there sailing across the glittering Aegean or taking the short trip across to Cyprus - reading Greek to Me definitely comes close to transporting you there. A passion for language, history and the desire to travel to places which form part of my own heritage are what drew me to this book, and Mary Norris wrote in a way which makes this memoir an absolute joy to read!

That all this speculation on shades of gray and blue and green and yellow and silver, with qualities as various as the moods of the sky and the sea, springs from a single ancient compound adjective, γλαυκῶπις, describing a goddess who has our welfare at heart, seems to me proof of the vitality of words, their adaptability and strength and resilience. Good words never die. They keep on growing. 

As a copy editor for the New Yorker, Mary Norris certainly knows her way around words - and it shows. But far from being a lengthy, convoluted treatise on all-things-Greek, her personal anecdotes from her experiences learning both the modern and ancient versions of the language and travelling to its shores are thoroughly entertaining. It did help that I have some grasp of Greek already and was able to recognise some of the words she mentions throughout, but even readers without any previous exposure will pick things up quickly. Something funny which I know has confused a few non-Greek speakers I've come across is how the words for 'yes' (Ναί) and 'no' (όχι) sound the opposite to what you think they'd be in most of Europe, and English too. There are also many connections to be found between Greek and English, such as the Greek word for newspapers (Εφημερίδες) being related to the English "ephemera": things that last but a day.

One night I dreamed that I was handling shards, pieces of ancient poetry with writing on them. The dream came back to me as I passed a church on the way to rehearsal, and I realized that ancient Greek is like the Bible (from Βίβλος): records of the past that preserve the things that humans most need to know.

There is a mini history, mythological, geography or cultural lesson to be found on every line, which both enchant and inspire. From glimpses into The Odyssey and Iliad to describing the effortless beauty of Cyprus, this book offers a brief but holistic view into the rich ties between time and place which have made me even more keen to visit. I also have a few more books added to my list thanks to her recommendations of Lawrence Durrell's Corfu Trilogy and a biography on Patrick Lee Fermor who played a significant role behind the lines in the Cretan resistance during the Second World War.

I knew a lot of Greek, but I wouldn't say I spoke modern Greek or call myself a classicist, either. I was more in love with the language than it was with me. My mind was like a riverbed and had silted up: it had its own archaeological strata from which an occasional find emerged. I had not mastered the language, ancient or modern, but I got glimpses of its genius, its patterns the way it husbanded the alphabet, stretching those twenty-four letters to record everything one could ever want to say. 


FINAL THOUGHTS

Greek to Me is both educational and entertaining, a book which highlights the joys of solo travel and fully immersing yourself into a place saturated with beauty and a vibrant culture. It's given me the opportunity to reflect on my own heritage and learn more about the places my ancestors originate from, where I hope to go on my own Mediterranean journey one day.

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