January 24, 2020
Care to guess what all of my seventh-grade essays and book reports had in common?
I somehow managed to shoehorn the word “perspicacious” into each and every one.
I thought of this when I recently watched the first episode of the Apple TV series, “Little America,” a docudrama of immigrants’ lives. The protagonist in the show is a first-generation American schoolboy committed to memorizing every word in Webster’s dictionary.
His motives are more tangible than mine were; his dad promises him a Trans Am if he manages the feat by age 16, plus he wants to win spelling bees. I just wanted to be a writer, and I had a hazy notion that novelists were smarmy and pretentious people who used words like “perspicacious” a lot. Every time I nailed a hefty multisyllabic word, I found ways, no matter how improbable, to incorporate it into my prose. Voila! I was a writer!
What I didn’t understand then was that words aren’t an end in themselves; they are a means to an end, and that end is effective communication. If you want to communicate that you’re a wannabe pompous ass, you find ways to incorporate “perspicacious” into your book reports. If you want to touch the soul of your fellow travellers to the grave, you use words to find common ground, or to transcend common ground, but above all to connect. Words shouldn’t separate us; they should bring us together.
Don’t get me wrong; my intentions were good, and my vigilant perusal of the dictionary, while a sad commentary on my social life at the time, has served me well in my career and my life in general. “Perspicacious” is a perfectly fine word, and I may just dust it off again at some point. But I won’t use a word because it seems impressive. I’ll use it because it has the ability to move, to empathize, to reveal, to inspire, to rattle, to resonate. That’s the power of words.
When I speak to schoolchildren as an author, I share the exciting secret that a strong command of the language has a generalizing magic. Those who speak well and write well are thought to be intelligent in general. Magic indeed! I’m a dullard in many, many areas — math, chemistry, sense of direction and Kardashian-related trivia, to name a few — but because I use the language well, people tend to assume I’m bright in general. This has opened so many doors for me. And the words that enhance my communication skills aren’t locked in a vault for a select few. They’re available to all of us.
But there’s an easier path to improving one’s command of the language than memorizing a dictionary. It’s reading for fun — mysteries, biographies, comic books, hydraulics manuals — whatever motivates you to turn the page. Become a reader, I counsel schoolchildren, and become a master — or at least a discerning connoisseur — of the universe. Socrates allegedly opined that the unexamined life is not worth living. To read is to examine one’s life over and over again, from as many different angles and perspectives as possible. What a sublime pursuit.
My daughter recently gave me one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. She said because I read a lot, I tend to have interesting things to say. To suggest that I’m a good conversationalist is more than a little ironic, considering I’m a hopeless introvert, but my heart soared that she said it. The written word has made my world — and has made me, by extension — more interesting.
What a gift.