Improve Your Vocabulary By Commuting

So I’m just about finished with a weekend back at home after a week of commuting to Brisbane for work, and about to head back up there again tomorrow morning at dark-o’clock-am. I was without real network access for most of this past week because a) clients often have draconian security policies designed to protect their own compromised immune systems (i.e.: they use Windows) from the Big Bad Internet, and b) hotels in this country still seem to think that charging $10 a day for broadband is justifiable.

I now have wireless broadband (from 3, under Ubuntu, a post on how to do this coming soon), so I hope to be able to write more regularly from now on, workload permitting. In fact, the ideas have been backing up since I now have vastly more opportunities to read. A two hour flight in each direction provides plenty of time for literary pursuits, and I’ve rekindled by long lost love for the written word. Happily, this also means I’ve rediscovered that I have the ability to express this love, and the joy I feel as a result.

In particular, I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace. Specifically, Consider The Lobster, an excellent compendium of his favourite essays. He is — or rather was, since he’s dead, alas — an excellent writer. So good that I’m way bummed, that he’s not around to produce some more of his most excellent work.

At times he seems to have an unhealthy affection for footnotes, and at others he is almost pompous in his choice of obscure words. I have also learned of an interesting practice, known as an interpolation, which he uses to inject a length aside into the main text. These stylistic peculiarities aside, which incidentally do no harm to the text itself, his writing is intense, passionate, and thoroughly enjoyable.

The most spectacular piece within this compendium is a book review titled Authority and American Usage, where he reviews a reference book by Bryan A. Garner: A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. At 60-odd pages, this review is less an essay than a scholarly explanation of why the rules of language exist, the fact that they do, and, most importantly, why. Wallace considers Garner a genius, and after his explanation, so do I. I’m not going to tell you why, because I want you to read what Wallace wrote. I’m not remotely qualified, nor would I be as pursuasive. If you have even the slightest inkling that you’d like to be able to write well, read this passage. I guarantee you’ll learn something. Even if it’s only the meaning of Hericlitean.

Most of the reading I’ve done lately has been either purely for entertainment, or purely for education. With Wallace, I have both. Reading him makes me smarter. Writing of this quality forces you to big-T Think. It’s impossible to read him without engaging those parts of your brain that are normally deadened by current affairs TV and Simpsons re-runs. Perhaps Neil Postman is right and we are Amusing Ourselves To Death.

The best part is that by reading these essays, I feel that I am learning something of the man himself. His writing overflows with a personality that is distinctive and intriguing. I read on not only out of interest in the topic at hand, but also to learn more about the man himself. His desires, his fears, his anguish, his joy. That he is able to inject this level of personality into his writing, without overpowering the subject of the text, is but one demonstration of his skill. By reading him, I am educated, entertained, and inspired to write well myself.

If I can even approach this level of skill, I will consider it a significant achievement.

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