My entire life, I have read voraciously.
From the moment my parents put a copy of The Color Kittens in my little 2 year old hands (yes, I started reading by myself when I was 2 years old) I could be found daily curled up with a book.
Fast-forward to elementary school when I informed my parents I no longer wanted to read “baby books” and they started purchasing me Great Illustrated Classic books from KB Toys and for a bit from the local supermarket. These were chapter books. CHAPTER BOOKS! My excitement was hardly containable.
My first was 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (I was probably 7 or 8 ) and I was enthralled. Giant squids and Captain Nemo and porthole windows and adventure…the stories enveloped me into a world of further imagination. They nurtured a sense of wonder and curiosity in my tiny impressionable mind.
I was convinced that even if the stories were fiction, the possibilities of life and the world were endless.
When we moved to a new town in Middle School, my parents marched in to my 8th grade teacher’s classroom during the second week, infuriated because I had already read every book on my class syllabus. Is there anything more embarrassing as a 13 year old? Secretly I was thrilled. She created a special reading plan just for me that took me away to Watership Down, which I consumed like a vulture and promptly took to sobbing because the rabbits died and/or chewed off their feet in traps. (This also became the period of my life where I was a vegetarian)
In high school, my love affair turned passionate as I began expanding my vocabulary and understanding of language by taking four years of Latin. My teacher, Magister Lawrenson, to this day is easily one of the most fascinating and brilliant people I have ever met. His classes were hard but I loved the challenge. Classical language study was like cocaine to me.
As I learned the origin of words and how alluringly poetic language could be, I fell deeper and deeper in love with it. I began keeping a notebook with me at all times, and I would write down words I didn’t know or that I found interesting. At night I would sit down with my Webster’s Dictionary and diligently research the etymology (word history and origins) and definition. A friend recently told me that he did that as well…because his English teacher made them do it for an assignment.
I did it for love.
Language was like a song. A lilting melody in every sentence I read. Words are beautiful.
In college, after abandoning my hopes of musical stardom and success, I settled in to a brief dalliance in a philosophy major and eventually a dual major in Classical Studies (concentration in Latin) and English/Creative Writing. Suddenly all those years I had spent consumed with learning and loving language were manifesting into a potential career and future lifestyle. I was in control of the words now. Like a gentle shift in an afternoon tryst, my lover was ready for whatever I wanted to do. Comical tales of romance, deeply themed stories of strife, marathon conversations about theories and rhetoric, and some awful poetry about cabbage.
After college, when I was forced in to the real world of cubicles and conformity and competition, my love affair began to wane. After 22 years the honeymoon seemed to be over. I felt like I had lost a small piece of myself. Often when I’d engage my vocabulary, I was met with teasing and bullying. One colleague used to comment to me frequently “There you go with your big $5 words. Trying to sound smarter than the rest of us.”
It never occurred to me in all my word nerdiness that I would somehow use language as a weapon of intelligence.
Words were not missiles to be launched vindictively. There are so many that are never used, but perfectly convey what you want to say. Words were everything that I craved in my own romantic relationships. Exciting and compelling and engaging and mystical and rich with history and meaning and context. Let’s face it, language is one of the sexiest things out there.
I didn’t know that I didn’t need to be like everyone else and I didn’t want people to hate me. So I left my lover alone in a quiet room, and shut the door. Promising to be back, but never sure that I’d ever walk in to that room again. In part, I wanted to leave it a pristine memory of a time that had been. As time passed, my shame grew. I distracted myself, avoiding the room in the tower that pulled my very essence from my chest.
Working on a story for Forbes (about Ebeneezer Scrooge and social media oddly enough) my lover arrived unexpectedly at my bedside. Gently shaking me from my slumber and swiftly sliding into the sheets beside me. Forgiving me without question for my disappearance. Our reunion was hesitant and cautious, like the rekindling of an affair with a prior partner. Yet somehow comfortable and magical, reminding me of the happiness I once had basking in language’s glow.
Anyone can develop a love affair with language and words.
You don’t have to start as a toddler reading about Brush and Hush to fall madly in love. You can begin your relationship at any time.
- Read A Dictionary – Pull out (or up) a dictionary and carefully read the definition (all the definitions) then all the “junk” after the definition. What did the word first mean? How is it grammatically used? What is the origin?
- Appreciate Etymology – You don’t have to study classical languages for 7 years to appreciate etymology. Words like awesome used to mean something. Awe comes from the Greek word áchos which means pain. Something is awesome when it has such an effect on you it feels painful.
- Do Crossword Puzzles – The one in the back of the TV Guide doesn’t count. Do the New York Times Crossword Puzzle. The first time you do you will probably know less than a quarter of the answers. I barely finish half myself.
- Read Fiction – I know, this one just pissed off a lot of you. I’m not sorry. Good fiction writing is laced with irresistible language. If you can’t trudge through an entire novel at least take to short stories. Pick up a good anthology. You won’t want to put it down.
- Read Classical Non-Fiction – Kick back with some essays by Descartes or Nietzsche. There’s a reason Plato and Socrates’ writing still matters thousands of years later. It isn’t only about what they say, it is how they say it.
Fall in love with language today.
Give in to the dark side.
Your life will be richer because of this love affair.