Saturday, December 15, 2007

28 points on a double word square

James Meek ruminates appealingly at the Guardian on the effects of his decision to begin looking up words he didn't know when he came across them in a book. Here's the last bit:
In the early 1990s, when I lived in Kiev and was sending despatches from the city, I sometimes mentioned the monumental sculpted figures buttressing lintels and balconies on the Silver Age tenements in the centre of town. And that was how, in some form or another, I described them. A couple of years ago I was reading an English translation of Andrei Makine's A Life's Music and came across this, about Leningrad:
Where space is curved by architecture, curved inwards by the speed of a motorway, humanised by the smile of a caryatid whose face can be seen from the window of my flat, not far from the Nevsky Prospekt.
I reached for the dictionary, and found that those beefy neo-Classical brutes of stone, whom I'd laboured to describe in Ukraine in 1993, could be nailed in one word, caryatid. I felt a moment of foolishness which must be very old; whoever invented fire, I suspect, quickly lost ground to the man who found a name for it. But I also felt a loss of innocence. I'll probably end up using caryatid if I find myself describing the old east-central European world where they are numerous. I can't unlearn it. And in some obscure, irrational way, that seems like a betrayal of the younger me, and people like me then, who don't know what a caryatid is. A rich vocabulary is like a scalpel, which can dice the world into tiny components with exquisite precision; but you don't want to end up with a mess of mince. Sometimes, when you look at a building through the eyes of a writer, it is right to to be urged to see the caryatids, the loggia, the narthex, the parterre, the pilasters, the squinches; sometimes it is better to read "house" or "cathedral", and be left to construct the rest yourself.
It's an interesting set of questions. I found myself at a young age with a strangely full vocabulary, partly no doubt from my youthful addiction to Anthony Burgess. (In fact certain words of this polysyllabic ilk still impossibly remind me of reading Burgess circa 1985 or so--crapulous; inspissated...) But I remember the one book that really made me aged fifteen or sixteen get a little notebook and write down the words I didn't know and look them up in a dictionary, I cannot think of a single other novel that ever made me do such a thing (and of course, annoyingly in those days though it is better in the age of the internet, if you read a work of literary theory and it had words you did not know you were likely to find that there were no entries for them in the dictionary!): Gravity's Rainbow...

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