Vocabulary and the reading diet

Justin Wehr’s recent post about vocabulary highlighted four reasons why vocabulary matters. The final reason:

Linguistic vocabulary is synonymous with thinking vocabulary.

Sort of obvious and also sort of mind-blowing. It also reminded me of a couple things:

1. Some of the funniest/best storytellers I know are funny because, in part, they employ their vocabulary really well. Maybe I just respond well to wordplay because I am a word nerd, but still, I think there’s relationship between knowing how to describe things well, and making the sometimes oddball verbal connections and metaphors, that’s essential to the funny.

2. That fourth reason also reminded me of one of my favorite Phrases To Live By:

If you write like porridge you will think like it, and the other way around.

That’s from Don Watson in his book, Death Sentences. I read it a few years ago and haven’t forgotten that little bit. It’s also an important reminder about the words (read: ideas) I consume.

I had the—honestly, pretty disturbing—realization the other day that too much of my reading lately has been a bit content-thin. Not enough for my brain to chew on. My reading diet needs more raw, organic roughage, less HFCS. So to speak. I don’t mean it in a snobby way, or to fetishize difficulty for difficulty’s sake, but I could do a lot better. And it’s not that the stuff I’m reading isn’t interesting—just that sometimes entertaining ≠ illuminating, delightful ≠ insightful in a long-lasting way. It goes beyond books, too. I’m trying to be more picky about the magazines, essays, blog posts I invest my time in as well.

Some final reminders to myself:

  • Primary sources are often awesome.
  • The classic texts stick around because they are often awesome.
  • The author’s iconic essay is often better than the subsequent book.
  • I live minutes away from a kick-ass academic library.
  • More intentional book-choosing is good. Aimless browsing for serendipitous library finds doesn’t always work.
  • I would do well to curate from like-minded people more often than I do. Ignore recommendations from smart people at my own peril.

2 thoughts on “Vocabulary and the reading diet

  1. Love it. I had the same realization not long ago (and that’s why I started the ‘best uses of my time’ posts as a sort of commitment contract).If you’re looking for reading material, I am 3/4 of the way through Jonathan Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis and although I was afraid from that title that it would be just another positive psychology book, it has turned out to be one of the densest sources of wisdom I have ever read. Highly recommended.

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