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Alexis von Konigslow on vocabulary lessons

Screen shot 2015-06-18 at 4.16.22 PMA distinct or specific lexicon can help make the reading experience vivid and real, writes Alexis von Koningslow

Sometimes, the thoughts that populate my head feel vastly different from those around me. I remember sitting in a cafeteria as an undergraduate, working on a physics problem set with classmates, whispering to them that most of the hundred or so other people in the room probably hadn’t even thought about calculus for the entire day. This was my first week of classes.

I was worried. We were using words like entropy, enthalpy, spaces, states, operators, eigenvalues, eigenvectors; I thought they might leak into regular conversations. I quickly realized that I shouldn’t have been concerned. Everyone in that room was starting to tend a new vocabulary. We were all becoming specialists. Even outside of the university setting, I believe this to be true: we’re all specialists in our own experience; we all have the specific vocabularies to show for it.

As a reader, I love to inhabit different head spaces, to get out of my own brain for a while. I’ve loved Ann Patchett’s pharmaceutical researcher (State of Wonder), Vincent Lam’s doctors and medical students (Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures), but also Emma Donoghue’s child (Room), and Cormac McCarthy’s trudging survivor (The Road), among so many others. Rivka Galchen has done amazing things in this regard. As I’m reading, I like to think about the words that frame the characters’ experiences, which words they’ve been exposed to, which ones have sunk in, and which ones swirl around the most and at which relative frequencies.

Vocabularies are like fingerprints, but more interesting. They give so much away. There are the specific words inherent to different professions, but I’ve always found that the subtle choices are equally important. As a reader, I get a sense of who’s bookish, who’s expansive, who’s shut down, who feels empowered, entitled, hopeful, drained, oft-thwarted. Words such as “always” or “never” can reveal inflexible thinkers, while other words characterize victims, bullies, thrill seekers, guilt inducers. Phrasing also gives a sense of the degree of tread on those neural pathways, how often the characters have had those thoughts and feelings before.

You hear this sort of thing in conversation too, of course, but reading provides different sorts of insight and empathy. You follow a character’s thoughts, presumably hear the words as they’re experienced, without filter and without translation. You’re allowed in so close.