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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

To grok, or not to grok... can you dig it?

Thanks to a link in Lexy's blog, I've discovered the win-win joy of Free Rice. Play a fun word game, generate page views that turn into rice for starving people. I can dig it.

In fact, I can grok it. That's the word that just came up in the Free Rice game, and, being the geek and R.A. Heinlein fan that I am, I knew exactly what it meant. (Well, as much as any non-Martian can.) I found its appearance in the game especially note-worthy, since most of the more difficult words that show up are old or archaic, but grok only dates back to the second half of the 20th Century.

Specifically, the verb "to grok" was coined by one of my all-time favourite authors, Robert Anson Heinlein, in what could be his most influential novel, Stranger in a Strange Land. What evidence do I have that this book was so important? Well, the fact that an entirely invented word from it found regular usage is always a good indicator. (Want another example? How about Joseph Heller's contribution to the English language, "Catch-22"?)

Of course, the most famous and widely-referenced inserter of words into the English lexicon is, unarguably, William Shakespeare. Olde Bill is also considered one of the greatest of English writers, if not one of the greatest of all time, in any language. Coincidence? I'm inclined to draw the conclusion that the ability to add well-used words to the language in which one writes is a significant indicator of the greatness of one's writing ability. Thus, I can say with some confidence that Heinlein was a great writer.

Now, "Stranger in a Strange Land" taught me a lot of things, about human relationships, about the importance of Science Fiction in a literary context, and all that other stuff that great literature provides. Lots of novels, though, have similarly contributed to my personal development and intellectual enhancement. Only this one also taught me a value meta-lesson about the art and process of reading.

I started reading "Stranger in a Strange Land" in my early teens -- I'm going to say thirteen, but it could have been later than that. I got about 100 pages or so into the book, and found I really wasn't hooked. Perhaps the writing style was a little more advanced (read, grown-up) than I was used to, perhaps the introductory themes failed to grab me, or perhaps I just wasn't into it right then. In any case, I ended up putting the book down, and picking up another, which I immediately got into. (What book? No idea? Could have been Beverly Cleary, for all I know.)

However, in the course of that summer, I went with my family on a road trip. I don't remember where we were going, but I do remember sitting in the back seat, finishing whatever book I was on, and looking in my travel bag for more. What did I find, but my copy of "Stranger in a Strange Land", still bookmarked at the place where I'd left off. So, I opened the book, stowed the marker, and began reading.

By the very next page, I was hooked. Michael Valentine, defending himself from a group of bad guys, reached out, gave a little twist, and one of the bad guys just went away. Heinlein described it as rapidly moving away from any and all viewers' perspectives, and then later had Michael further explaining what he did, but I got it right away -- he'd twisted his target on the axes of the four dimensions, at right angles to the three we move around in, and the man no longer moved around in the same three-dimensional space as the rest of us. It was cool.

More importantly, the lesson I learned was this: never give up on a book, just because the beginning isn't grabbing you. Never. Never ever. Any book you've decided is worth trying to read is worth reading to the end. Maybe the book ends up being a waste of time. Write it off as character building, learning from someone else's mistakes, and move on. Because maybe, just maybe, this could be a great book, and ditching it will make you miss out on its greatness.

So that's the rule I follow, for books especially, but also for movies and CDs (or albums, as I still like to call them). Each of these is a major work on the part of the creators, each has the potential for slowness, and each has the potential to move me and change me in ways I can only uncertainly guess.

What I'm saying is, you can't grok the book until you've grokked the whole book.

You grok?



At 6:00 PM, December 04, 2007 , Anonymous Frank said...

Beverly Cleary rules.

At 11:43 AM, December 05, 2007 , Blogger Hydrargentium said...

Many a long road trip was filled with the likes of Henry and Ribsy and the Motorcycle Mouse. Thinking about it, I'd have to say that Cleary is one of my all-time favourite authors.


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