Tag Archives: Yeonmi Park

Roger W. Smith, “thoughts about reading”

 

 

‘thoughts about reading’

 

 

“I seek in books only to give myself pleasure by honest amusement; or if I study, I seek only the learning that treats of the knowledge of myself and instructs me to die well and live well.”

 

— Michel de Montaigne, “of books” (The Complete Essays, translated by Donald M. Frame)

 

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“Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. … as good almost kill a man as kill a good book. Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye. … a good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.”

 

Areopagitica: A speech of Mr John Milton for the liberty of unlicenced printing to the Parliament of England

 

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I am very desirous to receive letters from You, and hope You will write to me very freely, both about your brother [Charles Cornelius Chambers] and yourself. Pray tell me very particularly the title of every book that You have read at school and every thing that You have learnt since You went thither. Tell me also what books or parts of books You have read for your pleasure, and what plays or exercises You and Charles are fondest of. For my part, when I was of your age, I was fonder of reading Robinson Crusoe and the Seven Champions of Christendom, than I was of any kind of play whatsoever; and, as I suppose that You may probably have the same taste, I have ordered those books and some others to be sent to You.

— Sir Robert Chambers, letter to his son Robert Joseph Chambers, February 12, 1790; in Thomas M. Curley: Sir Robert Chambers: Law Literature and Empire in the Age of Johnson (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). pg. 516. (Chambers, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal, India, was then residing in Calcutta, and his sons Robert and Joseph in England. The Famous Historie of the Seaven Champions of Christendom was a late-sixteenth, early seventeenth-century romance by the English writer Richard Johnson.)

 

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Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? … They are for nothing but to inspire. … Books are for the scholar’s idle times. When he can read God directly, the hour is too precious to be wasted in other men’s transcripts of their readings. But when the intervals of darkness come, as come they must,—when the soul seeth not, when the sun is hid and the stars withdraw their shining,—we repair to the lamps which were kindled by their ray, to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is. We hear, that we may speak. …

It is remarkable, the character of the pleasure we derive from the best books. They impress us ever with the conviction that one nature wrote and the same reads. We read the verses of one of the great English poets, of Chaucer, of Marvell, of Dryden, with the most modern joy,–with a pleasure, I mean, which is in great part caused by the abstraction of all time from their verses. There is some awe mixed with the joy of our surprise, when this poet, who lived in some past world, two or three hundred years ago, says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well-nigh thought and said. …

I would not be hurried by any love of system, by any exaggeration of instincts, to underrate the Book. We all know that as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge. And great and heroic men have existed who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only would say that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world.

 

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar” (an address delivered in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1837 before the Harvard Chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society)

 

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“I have been passing my time very pleasurably here [at his father-in-law’s home in Boston] … chiefly in lounging on a sofa … & reading Shakespeare. It is an edition in glorious great type, every letter whereof is a soldier, & the top of every “t” like a musket barrel.”

 

— Herman Melville, letter to Evert A. Duyckinck, February 24, 1849

 

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My residence was more favorable, not only to thought, but to serious reading, than a university; … Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind. …

It is not all books that are as dull as their readers. There are probably words addressed to our condition exactly, which, if we could really hear and understand, would be more salutary than the morning or the spring to our lives, and possibly put a new aspect on the face of things for us. How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.

 

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden; or, Life in the Woods

 

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Is Literature forever to propose no higher object than to amuse? to just pass away the time & stave off ennui? — Is it never to be the courageous wrestle with live subjects — the strong gymnasia of the mind — must it offer only things easy to understand as nature never does. [italics added]

 

— note, probably late 1850’s, by Walt Whitman; in Walt Whitman: Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, Volume IV: Notes, edited by Edward F. Grier (New York University Press 1984), pg. 1561

 

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“Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half-sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay–the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame­work”

 

— Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas

 

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“I was not an omnivorous reader–just a slow, idle, rambling one.”

 

— Theodore Dreiser, A Hoosier Holiday, Chapter XXXIX

 

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“Read, read, read. Read everything–trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write.”

 

— William Faulkner, Statement at the University of Mississippi, 1947

 

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“I could literally feel my brain coming to life, as if new pathways were firing up in places that had been dark and barren. Reading was teaching me what it meant to be alive, to be human.” — Yeonmi Park, With Maryanne Vollers, In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey To Freedom (Penguin Press, 2015)

 

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And then there was his book collection which numbered well into the thousands. Those books, mostly on the history of the fascinating period of his youth including the Spanish Civil War, Stalinism and World War II, were his sacred texts. He brought several tomes with him on his honeymoon in Mexico, much to my mother’s chagrin. He never let anyone read or even touch them. Their presence in every room meant that the apartment could never be painted or properly cleaned. I alternatively worshipped and loathed them, but they influenced me greatly.

 

— “A Jew without a burial site,” by Judith Colp Rubin [an essay about her father, Dr. Ralph Colp, Jr.], The Times of Israel, August 30, 2018

 

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Books are one of the most important and fulfilling things in my life.

I recall the pleasure long since past, when I was a boy, of curling up with a book, often at bedtime, just before going to sleep. I recall vividly a particular rainy day when I seem to recall we were in some remote location, perhaps a rented summer place. I spent a good part of the afternoon with a book, and felt so warm and cozy, sheltered from the elements.

I used to love that I was allowed to go to the Cambridge Public Library by myself after school when I was in the early grades. It was a rather long walk. I loved being in the children’s room, finding books, and being able to check them out by myself. There was a feeling of ownership and pride, of excitement in discovery, of being able to decide what you yourself wanted to read.

I loved receiving books as gifts. My parents and relatives were thoughtful gift-givers when it came to books. (I myself seem have inherited this. I have often had someone tell me, how did you know I would like this book, and this has occurred with people I don’t know well. Once I wanted to show appreciation to an editor with the gift of a book. She was thrilled to get the particular book I chose. It was not one, though I knew it was regarded as excellent, that I myself would have desired to read.)

I still love to curl up with a book. They are always there for me. They comfort me and are a solvent for boredom, idleness, and lonely hours.

 

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My home is filled with books, much as was the case with my former therapist, Ralph Colp, Jr. I have run out of bookshelf space. I have tried to impose some order so that I can find a book. Those on shelves are fairly well organized by broad subject areas and authors.

Dr. Colp told me there was nothing like having a book-lined study. Of having a book on the shelf there when you want it. Of being able to survey, take stock, of the riches there. He quoted to me what Edward Gibbon wrote: “My early and invincible love of reading I would not exchange for all the riches of India.”

Dr. Colp’s consulting office was lined with books, but he told me that this was only a small fraction — most were in his living quarters. He had run out of shelf space and some of the books in his consulting office were on the floor in tall piles. “What do you do when you want a book on the bottom of the pile?” I said to him once. “It seems to me that that would present a problem.”

“You’re right,” he said.

This was at a point in my therapy sessions when Dr. Colp had moved to a co-op in which he had an office and an apartment (his living quarters) on the same floor. Prior to that, I had been seeing him in a suite of offices he shared with another therapist, where there were few books. The first time I visited him in his new office, he spent the whole session showing me his books: a first edition of Darwin, for example. We never got to the session (therapy, that is) — he seemed unaware of time and was carried away by showing me the contents of his bookshelves.

 

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What makes a good reader? And why is reading important?

The answers seem to a large extent to be self-evident and, yet, they are questions I enjoy thinking about. Below are some thoughts of my own about reading. A description of my own reading habits. And, my advice to readers. In no particular order.

 

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The foundation of reading, like any pastime, should be pleasure, that you enjoy it. If you have a good experience with a good book, a great work of literature, you will want to repeat the experience. I experienced this, for example, with the following books which I read in my youth and my teens: Ben Franklin of Old Philadelphia (a young adult book; sixth grade); Anna Sewall’s Black Beauty (sometime in my elementary school years); Jim Brosnan’s The Long Season (a book about baseball; read by me in high school); Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (high school); and Pitirim A. Sorokin’s Leaves from a Russian Diary (in late adolescence), to name just a few. All were books that totally engrossed me; or, as the cliché goes, I couldn’t put them down.

A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, said to me that one should make it a point to read books expeditiously — don’t take forever to read them. You would not (although the analogy is not quite exact), for example, want to watch an opera over several evenings. This seems right, but I often violate the rule.

I want to read substantial, deep books that challenge me, fully engage me in deep thought. I get great pleasure from reading, but I do not read for pleasure in the sense of escapism (“literary” junk food).

I have found from the experience of a lifetime that I would rather travel mentally through reading books than travel in the literal sense. Reading a good book — say, a long novel — is akin to me to taking a trip, being on a journey. War and Peace, Moby-Dick, Les Misérables, Great Expectations.

You must be willing to submit yourself to a book, give yourself over to it, get lost in it. This happened to me with Moby-Dick. A critic once called it “a whale of a book.” Well, I devoured every part of it, including the cetology. I was totally wrapped up in it and Melville: the story, the whaling lore, Melville’s tone and style, the Elizabethan or Shakespearean ethos, the beauty of the narrative and descriptive passages.

Effort and stamina are required to get though a long book, including the great ones. But if the experience is worth it, curiosity and motivation (as well as pleasure) keep you going. This happened to me with Moby-Dick. It took me about three weeks to read it, in a copy borrowed from the public library that had wide margins and nice big type. During free time once, I was reading it on the steps of an open space in Midtown Manhattan. A man about my age with his girlfriend approached and, noting what I was reading, asked me if it was for a course. No, I said, I was reading it for myself. This, he plainly showed, pleased him.

I read deliberately and slowly because I want to get everything I can out of a book. (Speed reading to me is almost an oxymoron.) A good reader is an active reader. I am very engaged when I read and am anything but a passive reader. I am continually asking myself, what do I think about the thoughts expressed and the writer, and am constantly trying to “extrapolate,” in a sense, ideas and information to ruminate upon.

A book is not merely an inanimate thing waiting to be read. Reading is an experience like any other, say a personal or romantic relationship. What one gets out of a book — the experience of reading it – depends both upon what the book offers and what you, the reader, invest in it, the energy level, enthusiasm, discernment, and attentiveness of the reader.

 

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The books of most famous writers, invariably serious readers, usually contain marginalia. I no longer make marginal notes, but I do take notes quoting passages that I want to remember and/or be able to refer to. My “marginalia” nowadays consist of typed notes which I email to myself.

Authors whom I enjoy and references within a book to other works often lead me to other books. I always have a mental inventory of books waiting to be read.

Introductions should be read after — not before — the work itself. I want to form my own impressions — make my own judgments — without being influenced or prejudiced by an introduction. This seems to be most true of fiction. I often find introductions to be well written and very informative. But, first, I want to “meet” the author, with no one telling me what I will find or what to expect. It’s like meeting a new person.

To be ready for a book, say a classic novel, you have to be in the right frame of mind. This has happened to me with many classics. At some point — often this is the case — I feel the urge to read them. There are classics that did not engage me or that I did not understand or appreciate at some point in my life which I pick up later and am thoroughly engaged by. A good example is Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. It’s not the kind of novel I would ordinarily read. I tried reading it once not that long ago when perhaps I was just not in the mood. It seemed like a not particularly well written and overrated work. For some reason, I picked it up again recently and was able not only to finish it, but to fully appreciate Shelley’s genius.

Something very similar happened to me with Milton’s Paradise Lost, which I could not get through in college but read years later with great enjoyment.

One should read for as short or long a time as one likes. As for the best “reading position,” I sprawl, read in a reclining position. Dr. Colp read sitting upright behind his office desk, where he did all his intellectual work. I have never been much inclined to read (as opposed to doing research) in libraries.

I have found that the ability to read and focus on non-trivial reading material such as literature and expository or scholarly writing is a reliable measure or barometer of mental health. For me, at least. Meaning, that when I can’t focus enough to read, I am usually mentally troubled, in an agitated frame of mind.

As regards scholarly books — reading for the sake of learning — a deep, scholarly, and (hopefully) engrossing book, by someone who knows more than I do about a subject, I am very willing to submit to instruction, tutelage, by a scholar. In line with what I have just said, such reading seems to put me in a calm, deliberative, objective state — “in neutral,” so to speak. It enables me to get outside of myself mentally, to put aside self-absorption and the concerns of the moment. It is truly a matter of expanding one’s horizons.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2019

 

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See also my post:

“my treasured books”

Roger W. Smith, “my treasured books”

Vocabulary: Building and Using One’s Own; The Delight of Same; Its Value to a Writer

 

 

‘vocabulary building’ – updated December 2018

 

new vocabulary words

 

“When you have more words to describe the world, you increase your ability to think complex thoughts.” — Yeonmi Park, With Maryanne Vollers, In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey To Freedom (Penguin Press, 2015)

 

 

The following are some exchanges about VOCABULARY (no less) that I have had recently, via email, with friends and relatives, with persons who share my interests, and with readers of my blog.

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to a relative (to whom I was writing about my habit of walking):

I just Googled peregrinations. It was absolutely right. I’m impressed with my own vocabulary! I rarely seem to use the wrong word. And you thought Muhammed Ali was boastful!

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to Thomas P. Riggio, a Theodore Dreiser scholar:

I love to learn new words. There is one in the article you sent me: mite. [The article was about a late nineteenth century chaplain who used to solicit money for the homeless in New York City.] It usually means an arachnid (a small one). But it also has another connotation, and is just the right word for the context in the article you sent me — it’s the perfect word here. Among the meanings of the word mite are a very small contribution or amount of money. I love when words are used with such precision, and when a writer nails it. It demonstrates the power a good vocabulary can invest in a writer.

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to Clare Bruyère, a scholar and friend who lives in France:

 

I have always been assiduous about vocabulary. People tell me I have an excellent one.

I was reading a 1971 article in The New York Times Book Review by Edward Dahlberg (d. 1977), an American novelist, essayist and autobiographer, the other day. He uses a slew of words unknown to me.

His vocabulary is impressive, to put it mildly. He used quite a few words I had never seen before, and others that I was only faintly acquainted with. And, he used them all absolutely correctly.

Words used by Dahlberg, all in the same article: “mulligrubs” (ill temper; colic; grumpiness); “slubbered” (performed in a slipshod fashion); “scatophagous” (said here of Rabelais; means habitually feeding on dung, e.g., a scatophagous beetle); “musky” (of or like musk, i.e., the odor of same; a musky perfume; connotation: pungent); “exsanguinous” (adjective; means destitute of blood or apparently so; synonym: bloodless); “the sherds in the Mount Sinai Desert” (a sherd, or more precisely, potsherd, is commonly a historic or prehistoric fragment of pottery, although the term is occasionally used to refer to fragments of stone and glass vessels, as well; occasionally, a piece of broken pottery may be referred to as a shard); “scribble addle words” (addle: adjective, archaic; means rotten; said of an egg); “scullion reviewers” (noun, archaic: a servant assigned the most menial kitchen tasks); “Shakespeare scholiasts” (a scholiast is a commentator on ancient or classical literature); “cully” (noun; British; archaic, informal: a man, friend); “our wormy, desiccated subway” (wormy: adjective; said of organic tissue; means infested with or eaten into by worms; or of wood or a wooden object, full of holes made by woodworm; when said of a person, means weak, abject, or revolting).

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to the Tim Robinson, editor of Penguin edition of J. M. Synge’s The Aran Islands:

Your introduction was so pithy and informative, so well researched and insightful. Your impressive vocabulary alone was worth the trip. I kept jotting down words and expressions such as immiserated, nucleate, impercipient, immiscible, detrital, excursus, “inanimate vastitude,” and so forth.

 

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email from a reader of this blog:

Frequently, the phrases you use make you sound pompous. A good example is the ironic “sans redundancy” comment in your email of yesterday. Is there something wrong with the word “without”?

my reply:

“Sans” was used playfully (as you realize). Using another word unexpectedly can sometimes enliven a piece, amuse the reader, perhaps help to keep the reader awake, and sometimes help to nail a point. Foreign words can often be used for effect, variation, to amuse the reader, or to keep him on his toes.

For example, “trottoir,” as you know, is the French word for sidewalk. Walt Whitman, who was not actually well versed in foreign languages, loved to use foreign words on occasion, mostly French ones. (“Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway” is a line from Whitman’s poem “Mannahatta”.) He has been faulted for this. Some people can’t realize that one is not required to always say “sidewalk” when another word might be substituted. For various reasons, including a delight in language. The other day in a blog post, I asked, “are big words verboten in writing?” Obviously, I could have used prohibited. I was using the German equivalent playfully, with irony.

 

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email from a reader of this blog:

As for vocabulary, I don’t question your accuracy and knowledge, but sometimes question your choice. Why not “indigenous” instead of “autochthonous” in your Dreiser post? The two words mean essentially the same thing and your readers would have more easily gotten your point with the more commonly used word.

 

my reply:

I see your point, but one often strains to find the mot juste. Autochthonous was the best choice. There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader. I love it when writers such as Edward Dahlberg challenge me and increase my stockpile of words. Simplicity is a virtue, but simplification because many or most readers haven’t encountered a word before is not necessarily required. William F. Buckley, Jr. could be pedantic and a showoff, but I actually liked the way he used big, arcane words. He used them well (as did Samuel Johnson two centuries earlier). Big words and arcane or archaic ones should not, a priori, be avoided; it depends on the context. Autochthonous was the perfect word to describe Dreiser. It takes years of reading and of looking up words to know and be able to use such not commonly used words when appropriate.

 

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email from a reader of this blog:

You often try to use inflated vocabulary words in your quest to dazzle.

 

My hypothetical response (I didn’t actually send it):

I do have an impressive vocabulary, now that you mention it. I use it well: a big word when called for, often a simple one.

 

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Roger W. Smith, email to two close acquaintances:

 

I ran across the word “portentous” in a book this evening.

 

portentous

adjective

1. of or like a portent

“portentous signs”

synonyms: ominous, warning, premonitory, threatening, menacing, ill-omened, foreboding, inauspicious, unfavorable

2. done in a pompously or overly solemn manner so as to impress.

“portentous moralizings; portentous dialogue”

synonyms: pompous, bombastic, self-important, pontifical, solemn, sonorous, grandiloquent

 

pretentious

adjective

1. attempting to impress by affecting greater importance, talent, culture, etc., than is actually possessed.

“a pretentious literary device”

synonyms: affected, ostentatious, showy

 

Portentous is more or less a new word for me. It’s hard to keep the two (portentous vs. pretentious) straight.

 

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How I Built a Good Vocabulary

 

Any language expert or English teacher will tell you: A good vocabulary is developed only by reading, not from conversation.

There is another obvious factor, which certainly pertains in my case: I have always assiduously looked up words. I began to cultivate the habit early and have never stopped, so that if I don’t look up a word, I feel a sense of something being neglected. My high school English teacher, Mr. Tighe, used to repeat the mantra: look up a word three times and it’s yours.

I still look up words conscientiously, including ones of which I may have a prior idea as to their meaning and those whose meaning I may be able to guess from the context. I want to nail their meaning down, be precise. (For a writer, this is invaluable.) And, then, I am interested in etymologies. I like to learn the origins of words. Doing so can help one remember what they mean. An example is juggernaut, meaning a huge, powerful, and overwhelming force or institution — it’s a word I learned long ago. An example of its use might be “The Trump juggernaut swept him into office.” The origin of juggernaut is fascinating. From an online etymological dictionary:

juggernaut: An idea, custom, fashion, etc., that demands either blind devotion or merciless sacrifice. A figurative use of Juggernaut, “a huge wagon bearing an image of the god Krishna,” especially that at the town of Puri, drawn annually in procession during which (apocryphally) devotees allowed themselves to be crushed under its wheels in sacrifice. [The word comes from Sanskrit.]

 

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Argot and Foreign Words; the King’s English

 

An ear for slang helps when it comes to vocabulary acquisition — it helps, say, to know what wannabe or gladhandler means — as well as a readiness to converse with others from different backgrounds, cultures, and of different ethnicities (including foreigners). Foreign languages have their own words that don’t translate (ennui, bête noir). And, of course, there are the fabulous Yiddish words, which I never heard in my native New England, words such as klutz, kvetsh, mentsh, meshuga, shlep, shlemiel, tchotchke, and yenta.

Foreign language study and knowledge, of course, help greatly, especially a knowledge of Greek and Latin. It was a commonplace when I was in high school that Latin would provide a good foundation for learning English words and their meanings, as well as a basis for the study of other languages (and of grammar). I found this to be true. I have always wished that I could have learned Greek.

It goes without saying that being a native English speaker (born, as was my case, to native English speakers) is a huge advantage. I grew up imbibing the King’s English like my mother’s milk.

 

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Vocabulary as a Tool on the Writer’s Workbench

 

Having an excellent vocabulary increases — exponentially as more and more new words are acquired — one’s mastery as a writer.

Vocabulary gives a writer power. Words assist and go along with complexity of thought.

It’s something akin to a composer mastering different modes and tonalities or scales, or, say, tone color, so that a piece can be scored for different instruments used for maximum effect at various places in the score. When is a particular chord appropriate? Which key? Considerations of timbre, pitch, tonality, resonance all require prior knowledge, familiarity. In the same manner, a writer has to be familiar with words beforehand and to have a store he or she can draw upon. It’s too late to start looking them up in a thesaurus; if one doesn’t already know them, one won’t feel comfortable using them.

As vocabulary increases, precision of thought increases. More subtle distinctions can be made. There are a zillion ways, for example, to say that someone is shifty and manipulative. Which is the right one? To repeat: vocabulary permits ever more subtle distinctions to be made. In describing people, situations, emotions, ideas, and so forth.

When writing, I don’t like to use words that I don’t already know. They have to already be in my quiver, my “word silo” (to mix metaphors). I do not make it a practice to seek, look up, a new (for me) word and then use it so as to (among other things) impress others with my vocabulary. But, I will admit that, lately, when I am searching for a word, I will look for synonyms on the internet. What’s the best way to say desperate? I may know that there’s a better word for my purposes, but I can’t think of it. It helps to see a list of alternative choices. But I won’t use a word that I don’t already know. I have to have a “comfort level” with the word in question.

In the case of autochthonous, which I used to describe Theodore Dreiser, the word came to mind, somehow. It was lodged in my brain. I wasn’t sure if I had used it correctly. I looked it up, and sure enough, it seemed like just the right word. Do you think before a composer sits down to write a piece, that, at that moment, he opens a music theory text or songbook to look for melodies, chords, or styles? Of course not. They’ve got to already be in his brain, so to speak. This requires extensive experience on the part of the composer with music as a listener (as a student, so to speak; as an active listener to the works of composers from various periods representing a wide variety of styles). The same thing is crucial in writing, namely, extensive reading on the part of the writer, and what goes with it: the assimilation not only of styles but also of words.

What I find is that, if the word is there somewhere, which is to say in my mental “word silo,” then fortuitous choices get made. You often chose words almost by instinct or gut feeling; you have the option of going back and checking later to (which I often do) to make sure you have used the word correctly. But, having words already there in your mental storehouse makes it a lot of fun to write, feeling very pleased with yourself when the right one pops into your head, and you, think, “Got it! That’s perfect.” It’s mentally pleasurable. It’s actually a matter of ear, just as is the case with composers. People think vocabulary is drudgery, something you have to learn by rote to get a good SAT score. Actually, words are very much part of the creative process — the writing process, that is — an essential ingredient.

We have all had the experience in conversation of sort of reaching for a word. It’s there somewhere; we want to grab it out of thin air. So we can nail a thought.

When one does so, there is a palpable sense of satisfaction; the opposite, frustration, is the case when the word eludes us. When it comes to colloquy, arguments, political debate, rejoinders, irony, sarcasm, and the like, vocabulary is a definite factor and can make or break the speaker or writer. If the expression rapier wit connotes sharpness, then a good vocabulary will sharpen the blade while a limited vocabulary will blunt it.

 

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Dictionaries

 

I have to have a dictionary at hand when I read. For years, I have kept replacing my dictionary due to its being battered, the spine broken and the cover torn from use. I would always buy the same one: Webster’s New World College Dictionary. It has clear, lucid, well written definitions and good etymologies. There are a lot of Americanisms. The dictionary provides sensitive guidance on usage, unlike the infamous Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961).

My Webster’s New World contains entries for all the words I ever need to look up; there has hardly ever been an exception. I never cared for unabridged dictionaries or found them useful. I purchased one, The Random House Unabridged Dictionary, from a book club once and found that I almost never used it. It seemed to me that the dictionary’s bulk was a product of having all sorts of variant forms of the same word listed as separate entries and including entries for lots of technical and specialized vocabulary used in fields such as aeronautics or organic chemistry, say, that the ordinary reader would never need to look up. And, anyway, I much prefer the clear, well written definitions in Webster’s New World.

 

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Newspeak

 

Is a writer is obliged to always use the most common, simplest word?

No. Thank God such a rule isn’t enforced.

A point made by one of my readers to this effect — i.e., that the simpler, more common alternative should be chosen (see above) — has gotten me to think about the analogy with Newspeak. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Newspeak is the official language of Oceania.

Syme, who is working on the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary, tells Winston Smith:

It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well–better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words–in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?

(See fuller excerpt below.)

Note: I am not against the use of plain, simple, and common words a priori. The important thing, in my opinion, is that words be used correctly, and that they be used well. The key determinant is context. Variety, meaning that sometimes big words are used and at other times short, simple, and pithy ones, can enliven a piece of writing.

There’s another determinative factor here. What kind of writing are we talking about? An evocative piece about a walk in the woods? A prose poem? A piece of literary criticism? A philosophical tract? Vocabulary will vary accordingly. And, yes, a highfalutin word might spoil that descriptive piece about your nature walk.

 

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Vocabulary Is Built by Reading

 

I wish to note that I am not trying to emulate Noah Webster or compile a vocabulary primer. Almost all of the words and expressions I have learned over the past year or so were encountered in my recent reading. If you are inclined to say, that’s impressive, I would be inclined to respond by saying: proves my point: vocabulary is built by reading.

 

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Acquiring Vocab from the Greats

 

Different writers, ranging from Shakespeare to Charles Dickens and from Walt Whitman to Thomas Wolfe, have their favorite words — often arcane ones –which they will use repeatedly, and this will augment one’s vocabulary. (Plus, in the case of a great writer such as Shakespeare, their coinages.) It goes without saying that literature will broaden one’s vocabulary, from pithy, evocative words to high-flown abstract ones. Usually, these words will be used wisely and well, effectively.

And, then, different disciplines have their own vocabulary and buzzwords. An avid reader with wide ranging interests will pick up many words this way. This could include specialized words used in various professions and industries and in technical fields which often have a wider use. And, the reader who is not limited to deep reading in just one field (e.g., literature) but ranges far abroad (to, say, history or the social sciences, philosophy, the pure sciences, and so on) will acquire vocabulary which, needless to say, has a wide applicability and, in itself, can broaden knowledge.

 

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Concrete vs. Abstract

 

Many of the words I have looked up denote very specific things that one can visualize, e.g., berm, cladding, scantling. These words, because they are so specific, I find harder to remember, if, as is often the case, they refer to some observation I would not be inclined to make, for example, carpentry, a beach, building materials, and the like. Yet, they still intrigue me, especially their etymologies.

Maureen Dowd in a New York Times op ed piece used the word cratering to characterize Richard Nixon’s downfall. One would ordinarily think of crater, a concrete noun (a crater on the moon). But here she was using a verb which denotes a concept. I find it easier to remember the meaning of abstract words.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    August 2017

 

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Appendix:

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four; an excerpt from Part One, Chapter 5

 

 

“How is the Dictionary getting on?” said Winston, raising his voice to overcome the noise.

“Slowly,” said Syme. “I’m on the adjectives. It’s fascinating.”

He had brightened up immediately at the mention of Newspeak. He pushed his pannikin aside, took up his hunk of bread in one delicate hand and his cheese in the other, and leaned across the table so as to be able to speak without shouting.

“The Eleventh Edition is the definitive edition,” he said. “We’re getting the language into its final shape–the shape it’s going to have when nobody speaks anything else. When we’ve finished with it, people like you will have to learn it all over again. You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words–scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.’

He bit hungrily into his bread and swallowed a couple of mouthfuls, then continued speaking, with a sort of pedant’s passion. His thin dark face had become animated, his eyes had lost their mocking expression and grown almost dreamy.

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take “good”, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well–better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like “excellent” and “splendid” and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already. but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words–in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.’s idea originally, of course,” he added as an afterthought.

A sort of vapid eagerness flitted across Winston’s face at the mention of Big Brother. Nevertheless Syme immediately detected a certain lack of enthusiasm.

“You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,” he said almost sadly. “Even when you write it you’re still thinking in Oldspeak. I’ve read some of those pieces that you write in ‘The Times’ occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

Winston did know that, of course. He smiled, sympathetically he hoped, not trusting himself to speak. Syme bit off another fragment of the dark-coloured bread, chewed it briefly, and went on:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak,” he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. ‘Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”