by John Colgan-Davis
I love words. I love reading. Ever since I was a kid I have been fascinated by words. I read encyclopedias and dictionaries, newspapers, magazines and comic books. At one point my mother had to ban cereal boxes from the kitchen table because I could ignore the people around the table while reading the back of a cereal box.
I did crossword puzzles and studied the Reader’s Digest “Grow Your Vocabulary” features. I love the sounds of words and the implications of those sounds. Even today “mellifluous,” scrumptious,” “detritus” and “multi-syllabic” make me smile.
Years ago Cecelia Traugh, a former middle school head, did a wonderful lesson with kids analyzing the descriptive verbs in a piece of political reporting. She noted how different an impression it created if the article said a candidate “walked” into a room or “strode” into a room; “entered” it or “ambled into” it. I still think about that and note the power a carefully chosen verb or adjective can have.
Thus, I have been truly enjoying the fact that I now have the time in my life to do some serious reading. And by “serious reading” I don’t necessarily mean reading “weighty tomes” or books about depressing subjects such as climate change or income inequality. I mean that I now have the time to seriously interact with and enjoy words.
I love authors who can put words together in such a way that I can see, feel and/or taste what they are saying. They shake up my senses, make me more aware and make me see new things.
William Faulkner was one such writer. I love the way the feel and sound of his sentences transport me to a different time and place. Larry McMurtry did that same thing for me in “Lonesome Dove.” Ernest J. Gaines, who wrote “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,” with its wonderful speech patterns and descriptions of smells and sights, also does this consistently.
In an interview I read in high school, Gaines mentioned the Russian writers who influenced him, and that led to me to Turgenev, Chekhov and others who were able to make me see and feel the 1800s in Russian in ways history books couldn’t. Toni Morrison is another author who does that for me; I often think of her description of the troubled, tortured main character in her novel, “Sula.”
Morrison’s description still resonates: “..had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. But like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.”
Whew! And there have been so many others from so many different genres: Raymond Chandler, Ursula LeGuinn, Kenneth Patchen, Alice Walker, Yukio Mushima; Octavia Paz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and more and more. The list is endless; it will never run out.
Currently I am reading two very different writers in two very different genres who both love playing with words. One is Diane Lord. A Barbados-Canadian writer who penned a wonderful poetic and magical takeoff on a Senegalese folktale called “Redemption in Indigo.”
Part-folk tale, part-meditation on the nature of arrogance and partly a look at the unintended consequences of unrestrained egos, it is delightfully told in the voice of a narrator who loves playing with words and sentences.
In explaining why the heroine of the story, Paama, left her constantly hungry husband, Ansige, Lord writes: “I can hear some of you complaining already. ‘A woman who cooks and a man who eats should be a match made in heaven!’ Do you really think so? Then you have not grasped that Ansige was not an epicure but a gourmand. Paama’s talents were wasted on him.”
And the novel takes off from there. I am also reading “Winter’s Bone,” by Daniel Woodrell. An intense and bluntly beautiful story set in the Ozark mountains, it has paragraphs such as “A picnic of words fell from Gail’s mouth to be gathered around and savored slowly. Ree’s feelings could stray from now and drift to so many special spots of time in her senses when listening to that voice, the perfect slight lisp, the wet tone, that soothing hillfolk drawl.”
Both writers have these beautiful stretches of words that make me stop and go back and read them again. Often I have to read them out loud just to feel the sound of their words on my lips and to hear them in the air. It is a treat.
I have some other books I am planning to read and re-read in the next few months, and I would be interested in knowing what books and authors speak to you in special ways. If you feel moved, please drop me a line and let me know.
I would like to know what authors and works do special things to and for you. I am always up for a good read and for being turned on to a new author or two.
John Colgan-Davis is a long-time Mt. Airy resident, teacher and harmonica player for the local rockin’ blues band, Dukes of Destiny. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org