Friday, October 16, 2009

Somebody Get Me a Glossary

How do you feel about reading books where you have to reach for the dictionary? Do you try to guess from context? Do you make a note of it and look the word up later? Do you yell across the room: "Hey, what does davening mean?" Or do you get irritated and give up on the book?

I fall in the first and third camp generally. Try to guess, or yell across the room if my husband is around. Never, ever do I get out the dictionary. It breaks up the flow too much. But this week I actually gave up on a book. I was sorry to do so, but Allegra Goodman's KAATERSKILL FALLS had whole passages incomprehensible to me. The book is set in an upstate New York community made up of a variety of people, including an Orthodox Jewish community. The thought of getting a view into an Orthodox world is actually what attracted me to the book (that, and my husband and I were in grad school with Goodman, and she was an intimidating author published in the New Yorker even then), but as the unfamiliar terms piled up, with very few contextual clues for the uninitiated, I found myself wondering if I should read it at my computer, so I could Google as I went along. Not exactly a book to curl up on the couch with, listening to the rain drum on the roof.

Or how about the related difficulty--foreign languages in an English book? Nowadays writers usually include the English translation right after the foreign words: Yo no soy marinaro. Soy capitan, soy capitan. I'm not a sailor, I'm a captain. I'm a captain. But I've noticed older books assume you have a breadth of education that at least includes the Romance languages and sometimes German. I'm midway through Nancy Mitford's THE PURSUIT OF LOVE and have been dredging up my high school French because I sure do want to know what's going on between Linda and Fabrice. French, fine. But how despondent I was when Lord Peter Wimsey broke into Latin, for the love of Mike, when wooing Harriet Vane! What did he say? Don't do this to me, Dorothy Sayers!

Maybe if KAATERSKILL FALLS had only deluged me with Orthodox Jewish terminology in love scenes I would have hung in there longer. We'll never know.

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