Letter 4: “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think,” or The Vocabulary Lesson

Dear Mr. Wallace,

I think the only of John Updike’s works that I have read is “A & P.”  It’s a fun story about a very naïve young man trying to impress a couple of girls.  It doesn’t go well for him, as is probably expected.

Based upon your review here of his novel, Toward the End of Time, I don’t think I will be adding this one to my reading list.  Although my experience of Updike has been limited, I would agree with you in that I, for the most part, “admire the sheer gorgeousness of his descriptive prose” (52).  But it seems that you think this recent endeavor of his is not up to par; you say that both the protagonist and much of the prose are rather flat. And I trust your judgment, so I think I’ll pass on this one.

So what am I to do with a nine-page negative review of a book I will probably never read?[1]

Starting at about the second line of the review, I began to notice a lot of words that I had no idea what they meant.[2]  Now I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I do have quite an impressive vocabulary.  I just have a knack for remembering words.  I even find myself occasionally reading the dictionary for pleasure. 

As I read, I began circling words that I didn’t know, and ended up with a pretty substantial list.  So I will take this opportunity to learn from you, the master of grandiloquence; the man who, as some have said, can find – or sometimes even create – exactly the right word to say exactly what you are thinking. 

Below is a list of the words added to my vocabulary through reading “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think”:[3]

  • Senescence (n): Growing old; agedness.
  • Solipsist (n): One who believes the theory that only the self exists or can be proved to exist; one who has an extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one’s feelings or desires.
  • Erudite (adj): Characterized by great knowledge; scholarly or learned
  • Phallocrats (n):  Disparaging term for a man who uses his sexual power to dominate others
  • Iconoclasm (n):  The practice of attacking settled beliefs or institutions
  • Satyriasis (n):  Excessive, often uncontrollable sexual desire in and behavior by a man
  • Evection (n):  The disturbance of the moon’s motion caused by the attraction of the sun
  • Libidinous (adj):  Full of sexual lust
  • Anomic (adj):  Characterized by social instability caused by the erosion of standards and values
  • Dystopic (adj):  relating to an imagined universe in which the worst-case scenario is explored; opposite of utopia
  • Sino-American (adj):  referring to American – Asian relations
  • Rapacious (adj):  Inordinately greedy; predatory; extortionate
  • Prenominate (adj):  Mentioned beforehand
  • Bathos (n):  An abrupt, unintended transition in style from the exalted to the commonplace, producing a ludicrous effect
  • Insouciance (n):  The act of showing no concern; indifference
  • Turgidity (n):  State of being swollen or distended
  • Sinistrorse (adj):  (Botany) Rising up in a counter-clockwise manner, as a stem
  • Dextrorse (adj):  (Botany) Rising helically from right to left
  • Polygonum (n):  Any of numerous plants of the widely distributed genus Polygonum, characterized by stems with knot-like joints and conspicuous sheath-like stipules
  • Flaccid (adj):  lacking vigor or energy


Well, it’s official: I’ve been schooled.

[1] Of course, if a gun were put to my head or the safety of my children were at stake, I’d give it a quick perusing.  This isn’t a moral stance or anything.

[2] Rather ironic, I suppose, that DFW would use such an expansive vocabulary to review a book that he criticizes for its flat, and sometimes even boring prose.

[3] FYI: six of these words are not even recognized by Microsoft Word.


One thought on “Letter 4: “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think,” or The Vocabulary Lesson

  1. English is not my native language (Spanish is) and let me tell you: one of the greatest perks of reading DFW’s books in English is that, when he uses those latin root words, such as rapacious and erudite, I usually understand what they mean. Naturally, I’m often daunted by things that you native speakers wouldn’t even stop for a second at. The way DFW uses language is beyond stunning, delicious, something to binge on. You’ll see when you get to Infinite Jest! For example this little throwaway exchange:

    “…Pemulis is a whole different person before competitive play.
    ‘I’m fucking inept.’
    Schacht laughs.’You’re one of the eptest people I know. Get off your own back.’…”

    Millions of tiny stuff like this make you wriggle in your seat with pleasure.
    Congratulations on your endeavor! I wouldn’t have the courage to do something like that.

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