When I was 14, I began a passionate love affair with William Faulkner.
As you might expect in such an unusual pairing (he being dead and Southern, me being lip-glossed and wanting my MTV), we had a few problems to overcome, chief among them the fact that I couldn’t understand nearly half of what he was telling me.
He used words I’d never heard—exegesis, perfunctory, ameliorate—and so was like a young suitor who spoke in half-English and half-Italian, or Chinese, or Klingon.
No matter. In the first heady days and months of my ardor, I reveled in the dizzying complexity of his beautiful sentences, the layered depth of the world he shared with me, the sad and searching characters caught in a history not of their own making. That was enough to capture my heart and keep me returning. Or turning, as it were.
But then, impatient with the gulf of words widening between us, I decided to learn my love’s full language. I began my vocabulary quest with a paperback copy of The Sound and the Fury, a slip of construction paper purloined from art class that doubled as a bookmark, and a pen. Every time I encountered a word I didn’t know—doggerel, miscegenation, tautology—I’d write it down, along with the page number, and then I’d keep reading. After every session, I’d consult the dictionary (the bound one that ruled the day before dictionary.com or the “define” feature in Google), turn back to the paperback, and reread the sentence or passage with my knowledge of the word.
Indeed, it worked so well that I can still recall many of them—peripatetic, chimera, unctuous—wonderful words, magical words, words that began to erase our language barrier so that our passion would flourish and I’d finally—one day, maybe—be able to not just read but pierce the deeper meanings of my holy grail: Absalom! Absalom!
The discoveries were fun, even if they made me obnoxious. “Hey, did you know that what we’re doing right now is palaver?” I regaled my friends at lunchtime. “Isn’t that cool?” I wrote bad poetry (and made my parents read it) that somehow rhymed fecundity with profundity. And I’m sure my sister was thrilled to be told to hurry up in the morning because she was “as slow as a terrapin.” I couldn’t help it—using this new language was my way of saying, “Meet my new boyfriend! Isn’t he dreamy?”
Something similar happened to the genius filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro when he was a young lad in Mexico. In his case, it was a full-on language barrier: he discovered a monster movie magazine, in English, but such was his love of monsters (and movies) and desire to know more about them, he learned English so he could understand it.
Both cases—my adolescent Faulkner passion, Del Toro’s childhood monster movie obsession—point to something fascinating about how we learn the words we learn. Well, not how, but why.
When I taught English to 7th graders, I tried 1,001 different ways to get my students to acquire new vocabulary. We made word maps, wrote songs, created 3-D play-doh models. Some of these methods even worked. But that’s just it—they were methods, they focused entirely on the how of it all, when I should have been paying more attention to the why.
People most often learn new words because they have a compelling why. Sometimes it is to please a teacher, or to pass the SAT so you can get into a good college, but more often, the words that stick will probably be the ones you learn when falling in love with a computer geek or trying to understand an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Ultimately, these whys come from wanting to connect with something outside of yourself—whether it’s a dead Southern writer and his Yoknapatawpha County, tentacled monsters and their makers, or that cute nerd in your physics class. We need to know that we are not alone, and learning new vocabularies and sometimes even complete languages allows us to leap over natural (and manmade) barriers between people.
One of the stated goals of a public library is to be a resource of knowledge—to act as a kind of “people’s university” where all can ignite and explore what interests, excites, and fascinates them. I love being the catalyst for these initial explorations— “Hey, if you’re interested in X, you might like Y.” But I must admit that my favorite part is when people come in who are already clearly in the thrall of a topic or author, and they just want me to locate the materials that fulfill their unique passions. Antique firearms. Contemporary Irish literature. Raising chickens. Listening to them makes me want to rediscover my own passions—and maybe revisit The Sound and the Fury and all of those wonderful words I learned way too many years ago.
I did eventually get around to the intellectual workout of Absalom! Absalom!, but I always return to the first novel of his I read, because that is where we fell in love… and where I learned to speak fluent Faulkner.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published Aug. 5, 2011.