01 October 2012

The Art of Reading

A Personal Account of an Ongoing Relationship With Words

I've always been fond of dictionaries for as long as I can remember. As a teenager, one Christmas, I asked a relative for a dictionary as my holiday present. It was a Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, an edition in hard cover with red cloth.

Words have a life and a history, and just as with people their best attributes can be hidden in nuance. Writers, whose stock-in-trade is words, recognize the importance of giving words their full due. The best writers can make reading a satisfying, delightful and an almost delicious experience, all because of words.

The high school I attended assigned Victorian Era books like Oliver Twist. This was thrown in among other more readable books or what I then considered more “normal” fare. At the time, Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter seemed to me like an excellent choice to kill a young person’s interest in reading and literature.

Some years ago, at a cocktail party, I ran into someone who, as it turned out, was a high school English teacher. Our conversation led me to wonder out loud the point of assigning The Scarlet Letter to teenagers who don’t have the vocabulary to understand, let alone appreciate, the work. Her reply was something to the effect that the students understood the issues raised by the book and showed great interest in discussing them.

I simply nodded in agreement and left the conversation there. When I was in high school, it was only because of the book’s Monarch Notes, I was able to pick up—nothing distinct mind you, just—faint hints and clues as to what the book was about and the important questions it supposedly addressed.

I’ve now read The Scarlet Letter three times and I’ve formed a deep appreciation for its literary merit. I am also more convinced than ever that assigning it to the average high school freshman class is a disservice to the students.

At some point in college, I decided I wouldn’t let a single word pass me by if I didn’t have a ready definition for it on the tip of my tongue. This is a different standard than having a vague idea what a word means. For a period of what may have been two years, I carried a Little Oxford English Dictionary with me everywhere I went. It had a hard cover and was smaller than an average paperback. It contained the great majority of the words I looked up.

I was looking up words all the time. It’s a wonder I ever finished reading anything. Eventually, looking up so many words must have had some positive effect because I stopped relying on my Little Oxford. It was sometime after this, I had occasion to visit one of my university professors in his office. I was working on a paper and we needed to discuss its progress.

As I remember now, years later, it was a decent-sized office. The only other thing I remember about it is that in the office, up on a stand—or maybe it was an improvised lectern—sat a huge unabridged dictionary. It is the kind of dictionary you only see in the reference section of libraries, always opened somewhere in the middle as if a book like that isn’t meant to remain closed. It is the kind of book that has perhaps a four inch spine and if you had to venture a guess, you might say it easily weighs between 15 and 20 pounds.

Later on, after leaving the professor’s office—and the impression of the over-sized dictionary having settled in—I remember thinking to myself, “So this is how the pros do it.”

I have never owned an unabridged dictionary but I can certainly appreciate its value. I have never lost my fondness for words and their meaning. The habit of constantly looking up words still haunts me and to this day it slows me down when I read.

Ereaders have brought the art of reading to the information age. Today, the definition of 99 percent of all words is only one touch away when we read. You don’t need to lug around a Little Oxford and the Oxford English Dictionary is no longer published in printed editions.

Painting: Henri Matisse (1869 – 1954)

Do you have a special relationship to books, words and reading?


  1. I enjoyed this post and really relate in a different way. I love words, but when I was younger, I contented myself with trusting unknown words's meanings by the context, because I was too lazy to look them up. Now that I am writing (for many years), I look them up now, but wouldn't have to if I hadn't been so lazy. :-)

    1. Thanks for visiting Elizabeth. If you are using an Ipad or a Kindle, the job is a lot easier than it used to be. I think I was just too curious to be satisfied with context. This made me miss out on some good reading since I focused my attention on fewer things that I decided were worthwhile to focus my attention.

      Years ago, I tried to read Nabokov's Lolita and decided it wasn't worth the effort. And this, despite the fact that I understand all his interjections in French. I just started reading it. Yesterday,I learned that Cupid and Psyche had a daughter name Volupta.

  2. I think it's a writer's hobby, this love of words. Sometimes, I don't even have to know the meaning right away-- I savor their sound and the way they roll around on my tongue and enjoy their mystery a bit, snuggling in the clues of the context used. Of course, then, in the name of being educated, I look them up and usually, sigh, promptly forget the meaning. (I blame age.) Thought-provoking post.

    1. You make a great point about how words sound, Julie. When I write, I like my sentences to sound just right. I, like you, struggle with remembering half of what I look up. I think it's magical how some of it just seems to stick.

  3. Never have I heard someone express their love of the dictionary quite that way. I find your fondness for it fascinating but not at all surprising considering the way you seem to mingle and dance with words.

    I, too, remember those oversized dictionaries on college campuses and various libraries leaving an impressionable mark on my soul. Sitting on their pedestals as if the world revolved around them. And in some strange understanding, the world actually did.

    Love this post.

    I happened upon your blog from a trail of other blogs and I'm so glad I did. I find your viewpoint and writing voice interesting. I'm sure I'll be back for more of your insights.

    1. Thanks for visiting and sharing your impressions, Demetria. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Looking forward to running into each other again in the blogosphere.


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