If I lend you a novel I’ve read recently, you’ll crack the spine to find the pages mark-free. Nary a pen scribbling, and nothing underlined. This is a bad thing, and I’ll tell you why.
When reading novels, I used to underline words that were new to me, and then later look them up. I was enthusiastic to learn new vocabulary, but also frustrated. I used to feel that coming across an unknown word was like someone throwing a hockey stick through the spokes of your bike when you were pedalling fast. An interruption in the rhythm and magic of reading, a fourth wall suddenly gone AWOL.
Why would a writer do this to me?
Allow me to skim my copy of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. This is what I see: Diffraction. Contrapposto. Vaunt. Not to mention a bus transfer with the exact timestamp of when my smooth read hit one of these brick walls.
I would look up the definitions and try to commit them to memory, determined to derive the only benefit possible from these crimes against reading. But I would invariably forget what they meant.
Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon’s epic, 18th-century tome from 1997, is similarly marked: Avian. Velleity. Fiduciary. Transom. Sanguine. Screw the dictionary. I learned the pleasure of contextual guessing, reading not only to discover the plot, but also to stumble over the passage that would unlock the mystery words a few pages back.
I soon saw these words less as obstacles and more as gifts. New words can come in handy, right? We may need them to describe new situations in life, new surroundings or a new relationship. The taste of a food first discovered, melting indescribably on the tongue, long after you formed the biggest chunks of your lexicon.
I eventually had to change my underlining habits. One time, in desperate need of rent money, I had to sell off a bunch of my prized novels. The owner of a used bookstore thumbed through them, squinting.
“Can’t take these,” he said, and thrust them back at me. “Use pencil next time.”
He was being rather sanguine.
Not knowing when I’d be short of money again, I took his advice. I started to note new words in the backs of books with an HB graphite pencil. Douglas Coupland made me write a long list: Popstrel. Plumeria. Flense. Gneiss. Tesseract. Chockablock. The problem was that I neglected to mark the pages they came from, so when I eventually looked them up, they didn’t illuminate any part of the story for me. Drats!
I grew disillusioned with the word-power enrichment process and started to compile new words haphazardly in Moleskine notebooks — I removed them from the books altogether. There became no telling if screed, threnody, flimflam or unction came from Sarah Schulman, Jeanette Winterson or JT LeRoy. The five-page soup of decontextualized gibberish taunted me every time I opened it.
Things changed for the better the day I realized that conversation was key.
Too simple to be true, but I had all the evidence. I grilled a San Francisco taxi driver about the definition of “microclimate,” incredulous that the city had five-degree fluctuations in temperature from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. That word has been emblazoned on my memory ever since. Similarly, a conversation with my fiction editor did the same for the word “grume”; we had a lively discussion in the margins of my latest manuscript about whether I could use it to describe bloody fingerprints.
My favourite new word learned in adulthood, however, is “crepuscular.” I found it in an Edgar Allan Poe short story collection. I must’ve underlined it five times, and probably circled it, too. The conversation that seared it into my grey matter? I was looking for a word to describe my cat, a cat who resembles a black panther and slips through the shadows, awaiting the sunset every night, when the bugs come out, so he can chase them in the backyard until their timely deaths. A nocturnal hunter who is invisible in the moonglow except for eyes that gleam yellow.
Crepuscular means “of the twilight.”
It looks like there’s hope for my five-page list, as long as I keep squawking.
Are there any new words you’d like to commit to memory? Talk to me. It might be your only hope.
Fingerprinted appears in every issue of Xtra.