I use the public library weekly and, when I return home, stash my haul on a bookshelf. On the shelf at this moment are several histories, a gardening book, and Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time, a novel about the abduction of a three-year-old girl and the unraveling of her parents’ marriage—guilt, anger, grief, loneliness. I’m a quarter of the way through this tidy novel but may return it to the library, unfinished. Words are underlined in pencil by one of the previous readers, who, I suspect, was trying to improve her vocabulary—deciduous, reptilian, affability, provenance, slow loris, averse, etc.
The underlined words have halted my progress and not because of annoyance. As a poet, invariably searching for the right words myself, I began to consider the author of these pencil strikes. I couldn’t help wondering about this previous reader—the culprit, let’s say. She was female, near my age (early 60s), and reflective about the years lost on a no-good husband. Like the dainty pencil marks, she was understated in every way—touch, voice, makeup, and clothes. I began to imagine her as a reader of admirably crafted contemporary fiction (I still consider McEwan’s novel, published in 1987, “contemporary”). Perhaps a nurse attracted to the novel’s theme. Or a psychologist—but no, that was wrong too. A psychologist would have known most of the underlined words, as would have a nurse. Maybe an inexperienced bookworm on her way to the morning shift by bus?
Who was she? I assigned her the details of a life story. A widow, she read the novel late at night, with cotton balls in her ears against the noisy neighbor above, while a moth batted around the lamp and a cat the color of smoke slept at her feet. No—she was an office worker on her lunch hour in a park with graffiti-marked trees. A duck with a white ring around its neck was eyeballing her from three feet away. Did she have a crust of bread to quiet its quacking? But no, I was hasty: She was really a florist in rubber boots, her breath condensing in the cold, with a surplus of roses in tall buckets to sell by late afternoon.
Conjecture, all of it, but one fact remained: A reader had underlined words. In doing so, she had embraced the view that learning doesn’t end. She might have been a mail carrier padding about in corrective shoes (this is how I saw her by page 180), but she was not about to give up on her head, now capped with grayish hair.
There are thousands of words we don’t know, long or short, soft or clunky, seen in print or heard in conversation. We can just let them go, like passersby, and be none the worse because of it. But we can also give new words a try on their own. Who is this person who looks like a dogmatic priest? What sort of fluctuating shopper is she? Where did they get that dubious car? These adjectives may not quite fit the nouns, but the attempts are interesting. Why don’t we forge the refrigerator? Close but not quite.
In a recent novel, I paused at this sentence: “‘She’s fly,’ said Mathew to his best friend, Ronald.” Fly? I mouthed the word, quietly befuddled. Was this a typo? Did the author mean to say “She’s flying”? That wasn’t probable, because the scenes in the novel were grounded—nothing about planes, terminals, check-in, and such. Failing to grasp the meaning, I asked a young man eating lunch on a bench, who said that fly meant “lovely” or “pretty” or “hot.” Then the young man put down his sandwich and informed me that the word was like a BlackBerry—no longer in use.
I might finish McEwan’s novel—it’s very good, after all. But as my eyes peruse his prose, I can’t help thinking of the previous reader—nurse, psychologist, florist, or mail carrier—as concocting a subplot, a sleuth with a pencil poised. With affability, she turned the reptilian page and, through reading glasses as thick as mine, made aversive check marks on her dubious self-improvement, while her cat and her stuffed slow loris watched with provenance from the end of a very comfy and deciduous bed.