It sounds like something out of a cinematic romance: A woman goes on an overseas trip and unexpectedly falls in love.
But Mary Norris didn’t have a passionate affair with a person. She’s had a lifelong passion for a language.
Norris’ new book, “Greek to Me,” chronicles the former New Yorker copy editor’s fondness for the Greek language, which she’s been fascinated with ever since she did a geography project on Greece in the fifth grade.
(The book is in English, by the way.)
Norris will be in Madison to talk about the book and sign copies at the Madison Public Library’s Central Branch, 201 W. Mifflin St., at 7 p.m. on April 29.
Norris weaves her love of the Greek language into a brisk, witty book that’s also a travelogue (she’s visited the country eight times), a history lesson, and an appreciation of the people. She writes, for example, of her admiration of the Greek people's ability to wring everything they can out of what they have: “Oil from the olive, wine from the grape, ouzo from whatever ouzo is made of — I don’t know and I don’t care, I’ll drink it — feta cheese from sheep’s milk and salt, mosaics from pebbles, temples from stone.
“It is not rich, but they have turned it into a place that is rich in ways that transcend a country’s gross national product.”
In an interview, Norris said she’s not sure why Greek has become shorthand for “incomprehensible,” as in, “it’s all Greek to me.” While Greek has some different characters in its alphabet, Norris said it’s ultimately a phonetic alphabet.
“The more you learn about (the Greek language), the less forbidding it is,” she said. “My ideal reader is someone very much like me, who loves it but has not mastered it. I would love to win over some readers who have never thought about it before.”
Still, Norris said she had some back-and-forth with her editor about exactly how much Greek she could get away with putting in “Greek Like Me” without losing non-Greek readers.
Norris said she’s gotten good feedback to the book so far from readers interested in various aspects of Greece. She’s also pleased to hear good things from Greek-Americans, particularly second- and third-generation immigrants.
“They grew up with parents who spoke Greek above their heads, and they remember some of the phrases and pronunciations,” she said. “Now they want to go back and study modern Greek.”
Even if a reader isn’t particularly interested in Greek, Norris hopes her book will inspire people to explore a culture and a language they’re interested in.
“If I can inspire people to study any foreign language, it will make me happy,” she said. “You have to be willing to make mistakes, which not everyone is.”
“Greek to Me” is the follow-up to Norris’ 2016 book “Between You & Me,” which wove together her love of the English language with her escapades in the copy department of the venerable New Yorker magazine, a job which earned her the nickname “The Comma Queen.”
“It was a lot of responsibility and a great privilege,” she said of her time at the magazine. Some of the writers I got to work with were just geniuses. John McPhee. John Updike, Janet Malcom I really admired. And Roger Angell, still writing at 98!”
However, having worked with such literary giants proved to be somewhat inhibiting at first when it came time for Norris to write her own book.
“I was always proofreading my own prose, and was trying to apply what I learned from Eleanor Gould, the New Yorker’s legendary copy editor, to my own writing,” she said. “And that would just kill it. Like a friend said, you have to learn who the enemy is. I could write a first paragraph and polish it forever, and never write the rest of the piece.”