How to Become a National Merit Scholar in One Easy Lesson

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Unless you count words like “groovy”, which has been of limited use to me since the mid-1960s, I personally do not have an enormous vocabulary. But I know someone who does, and I know where she got it, so I’m passing the information along to anyone else who might be interested. (And yes, she was a National Merit Scholar.) When you sit down to write, you can never have too many words to work with. The right one, in the right place, makes all the difference.

And by the “right” one, I do mean right, and not merely close, or right-sounding— as in “complacent” for “complaisant”, for instance, which I encountered just yesterday in a letter from somebody who really knows better. Trust me: The thesaurus provided by Word can be a useful jog to the memory, but its assertion that this or that word totally unfamiliar to you is an exact synonym for the one you do know should not be relied upon.

My secret method for acquiring a powerful and versatile vocabulary not only works better than lists to memorize, anything offered by Microsoft, or even a Word-a-Day calendar; it’s lots more fun, too. My secret is reading nineteenth century literature. Tons of it.

Sure, you can pick up new vocabulary from the literature of any century, including our own. But there’s never been a time in the history of the English language when writers were more determined to stuff even the most trivial matter full of words like “lucubration”, and “pulchritudinous” than they were in the nineteenth century. Even in adventure books—intended for the masses and young people who had not yet been to University—“gloamings” were “crepuscular”, and storms “illumed” by “coruscating” flashes of lightning.

And that’s the great thing about my method. With it, instead of battering your brain with some dull scholarly tome in an attempt to force in new words, you get to read Mark Twain; Bret Harte; Lewis Carroll; or something—anything—by Jane Austin. –And don’t neglect H. Rider Haggard, whose She, I believe, at one point enjoys an empyrean feast.

What could be easier or more fun? Read cool stuff: learn new words. Win/win.

Also, you will learn a lot of grammar from long nineteenth-century sentences that you will never pick up from, say, Ernest Hemingway, who thought he was going overboard if he put two dependent clauses in the same paragraph.

Still, if you happen to get that Word-a-Day calendar for Christmas, you should totally go for that, too.

Happily Ever After?

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I admit to a strong preference for happy endings in books.  A really strong preference, in fact; as in, I read the ends of books first to find out whether I’m going to get one.  I don’t necessarily reject all books with sad endings, but I like to have the option of rejecting them.  This is probably because when I was still young and impressionable, having seen and loved the movie version of The African Queen, I read the C.S. Forester book on which it was based.

This was a mistake.

(There’s a spoiler coming next, but if you haven’t already read The African Queen and think you might ever want to, don’t skip the spoiler.  Read on.  This is something you’ll want to know.)

I’m not shy about mentally re-writing books that I feel have let me down a little

In the book, Rose Sayer and Charlie Allnutt don’t almost get hanged, the German captain doesn’t marry them, and they don’t manage to blow up the Königin Luise; a British gunboat does.  Instead, the two lovers ride off into separate sunsets (Charlie is going to join the British Army!) with no more than a vague and unromantically-phrased “agreement” between them; and (in the author’s words) “whether they lived happily ever after or not, is not easily ascertained.”

What the hell kind of an ending is that?

And the answer to that question is—a better one than the ending to that great American classic, Huckleberry Finn.

Huckleberry Finn is, by nearly everybody’s reckoning, one of the greatest novels ever written, right up to the point where Aunt Sally says, “Why, it’s Tom Sawyer!”  Then it turns into one of the world’s greatest disappointments.

Now, I’m not shy about mentally re-writing books that I feel have let me down a little.  Just recently, The Martian got a mental re-write in which the Mars base was relocated underground.  Until I’d satisfied myself that poor Watney wasn’t going to be rescued only to die of cancer five years later, I couldn’t relax and enjoy the rest of the story.

But until just a few weeks ago, I never considered another ending to Huckleberry Finn.

This is probably because in the first English class in which I studied it (middle school, as I recall), the teacher announced, in a manner that brooked no argument, that Huckleberry Finn lapsed into silliness at the end because Mark Twain couldn’t bear to write the tragic ending that the story must inevitably otherwise have had.  There was no third choice, apparently.  It was slapstick or heartbreak.

Friends, this is a lie.  It took fifty years and more than a touch of senility to free up my brain enough to see it, but there are actually at least seven million possible alternate endings to Huckleberry Finn.  One jumps straight out at me.  Huck has his share of the treasure from Injun Joe’s cave:  Why doesn’t he buy Jim (and then, presumably, free him)?  If Miss Watson is willing to sell, why not to Huck?  Possibly Twain could even have had the Widow Douglas facilitate the sale in return for Huck’s promise to return and bear meekly with being “civilized.”  That kind of arrangement would have provided all sorts of opportunities for him to include a lot of pathos and soul-searching on Huck’s part, as he voluntarily relinquishes—not his fortune, which clearly isn’t important to him—but his freedom.

Which still leaves 6,999,999 other possible endings.  I’d love to hear some of them, if anyone will share.