Thoughts about what it means to be a writer & a reader now....
What do I expect from you, dear reader? More importantly, what does any author expect of their readers?
Do I expect that you’ll skim over the text and smile quietly, or do I expect you to wrestle and engage with it, mano-a-mano?
Suppose I use a word like “vasty.” What do you think as your eye passes over? Perhaps I would have used it in a sentence like “This essay is a place of vasty ideas.”
As you read, you might have had a momentary mild surprise, but then keep on reading. Since you know me and have read things like this before, you’d probably assume that it's not a typo, and I had something slightly odd in mind. But unless you’re a dedicated reader and burdened with an endlessly inquiring mind, you probably won't look it up.
Why not? In an online world, where many things are quickly searchable, why not? What does this say about the nature of reading?
These are the kinds of questions every writer constantly asks as they write: “Is this getting my point across? Will people understand what I mean if I use this word? What about that word? Should I use concept A or concept B to be as clear as possible?”
I’m not sure how other writers do this, but we are always standing balanced on the knife edge of decision. Shift the salami of choice one way, and the edge cuts fine and the word works in the text; shift it the other, and the wounded word drops to the floor, un-understood and point missed. This is true at the microscopic level (word by word, slice-by-slice), and at the macroscopic level (story thread by story thread, or salami-by-salami).
One of the joys of reading is seeing the way some writers play with language. I completely enjoy reading books by Barry Lopez, almost always learning something new about the world, and about language at the same time. In his essay “Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire” you learn a new word right off the bat: Effleurage is a massage done with a circular stroking movement. What’s fascinating about this use of the word is that he’s describing the way a traditional potter’s use of a long, “dragon-shaped” wood-burning kiln to fire his pots. That’s about as far away from the ordinary meaning of effleurage as you can get which normally has a connotation of delicacy. But once you know that word, the essay sparks with a kind of brilliant glimmer of insight. The potter IS massaging the kiln’s fire, moving it up and back and around in the dragon’s belly; the idea is similar, but logically distant, and very, very precise.
Obviously, the best choice is to be self-defining in your prose choices. Tom Robbins writes in “Still Life With Woodpecker” that “…Hawaiian was a language that could name a fish"humuhumunukunukuapua'a" and a bird "o-o" and never mind that the bird was larger than the fish.”
By the time you visually zipline over the 22 characters of the Hawaiian name, you know that humuhumunukunukuapua'a is a fish and the 3 character o’o is a bird, all nicely self-contained.
As a writer, you expect certain things from your readers. If you’re writing a Russian novel, readers expect interesting Slavic names. If you’re crafting technical documentation, you write with the expectation that the reader wants to get through your sterling prose as quickly and painlessly as possible. Naturally, the most important thing you can have in mind while writing is an image of what your readers understand and what they’ll do in response to what you write.
It boils done to choices like this: Can I use a word like effleurage? Will readers understand what I mean? Will they bother to go look it up? What about words like quark, reification, dendrochronology, or metasequoia? What about concepts such as Stirling engine, dark energy, or the Hanseatic League?
I really don’t know what other writers do, but here’s what I think about as I write:
It’s magazines all the way down.
What I mean is that if you’re a “Gourmet” magazine type reader, I can use vocabulary like emulsify, lecithin, and molecular gastronomy with impunity. If you’re a “National Geographic” reader, I know I’m safe with places like Tierra del Fuego, and Alice Springs, or concepts like “walking a transect” or “karst topography.” A “Reader’s Digest” reader implies a certain level of simplicity in writing, while “National Review” implies another. Even conceptual fields that are far flung can be useful to think about. Someone who scans “Cigar Aficionado” will know that sometimes a Cohiba is just a Cohiba, while a “Scientific American” readers will probably understand the difference between “dark matter” and “dark energy” and if they don’t they’ll look it up. But they also might not know the difference between Bob Marley and Bob Crachit, or care.
So the REAL question is not just what kind of magazine audience do you write for, but also what do you expect the reading audience to do with what you write?
Will they look up a concept or word and reach for the deeper meanings? Will they bother to check out the reference I’ve made to an essay or book?
I’ve found that my reading style has shifted as I move into more electronic forms. Now, every time I see a word I don’t know, if I’m on a tablet, I long-press it to get the definition. This has changed the way I read; it has changed the level of understanding I have. I do more-or-less the same thing when reading an essay on my laptop. The mention of the name of an interesting essay (say, “Effleurage: The Stroke of Fire”) causes me to copy/paste it into Google and see from whence it came. Note that I gave you the link in the mention above. Should I do that, or should I expect that you can do it on your own?
Another example: I, the writer, expect you to be able to recognize quotes. And I guess I expect you to look up stuff that doesn’t make sense. I expect you can find a reference even if I just sort of graze up against the idea or borrow a bit of language.
Does this cause me to write differently? It certainly does. I have more expectations of you because you, gentle reader, are a creature of the present, and reading now is different than it was 50 years ago. I expect more of my readers.
By the way, have you looked up “vasty” yet
Turns out that it just means “vast,” after all. BUT… it evokes a particular sense of time and place and kind of purposefully overwritten meaning. “Vasty” was introduced in 1596 by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 1, so it’s been around for a while. It appears when Hotspur mocks Glendower for his outrageous claims that he can control the devil and spirits.
Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;
But will they come when you do call for them?
Glendower: Why, I can teach you, cousin, to command the devil
Hotspur: And I can teach thee, coz, to shame the devil—
By telling the truth. Tell truth and shame the devil.
Henry IV, Part I Act 3, scene 1, 52–58
That’s it—the original coinage of the term. But you knew that. I know some fraction of you looked it up.
Other writers have picked up the word and used it in their own writings, but always in a passing homage to Shakespeare. And that’s how I’m using it, as a bit of spice to the story. And for people who remember where “vasty” comes from, it adds a twist of zest, a kind of seasoning for the mind. In this case, I’m using it as a foil, but a fun foil that makes my point. It’s all just words, but this one is very New Yorker and Paris Review.
As are you—which is what I would have expected.
Have you looked up humuhumunukunukuapua'a yet? It’s well worth the cut-and-paste. Such a long word, but such a brilliant fish.
How National Geographic of you!
And how our expectations about literate reading have shifted.
Keep reading. But read differently.