The sensuality of words
Italo Calvino, a writer I admire, once said, "A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say."
Each one of us could interpret that quote differently. To me, it means this: a classic book is one that stayed with me long after I put it away because of how strongly I related to the story through the language the author used. You'll notice I said how strongly I related to the story, not the characters. Yes of course I prefer a character-driven story, but I can't stay with that character very long if I can't immerse myself in their world through my senses. A friend once gave me the moniker, "sensual word goddess", and I wear that label proudly, as both a writer and reader.
In my contrarian version of a classic book, an author rarely uses words and phrases in a piece of dialog that evokes a sensual response in me. I need to feel, taste, smell, touch, and see the characters outside of dialog. In both show and tell fashion, it is in the exposition, setting, or internal dialog parts that many readers skip because they have no action. I, too, sometimes skip these sections if they don't include a few choice, sensuous words and phrases. The bon mots in those parts are the ones I often reread, highlight, and read aloud to myself or to my husband; it is in those moments that I pause in deep appreciation for authors who have shared their keen imagination and taken the time to compose such loveliness for their readers. They recognize their readers are on a journey through their story and they want them to savor it.
John Yeoman, to whom credit must be attributed for his self-proclaimed, Slow Book Movement, recently discussed “revisiting the leisured cadences of yesteryear” and “rediscovering the sensuality of the word” in the books he reads. I can so relate and I love it when I find those books. I'm not talking about going back to the time when novels didn't start until you got 100 pages in. I don't have that much patience.
My reading time is so precious that I fully embrace the Slow Book Movement. I love it when I can measure it in books that that make me sigh, swoon, smile slowly, and maybe even shut my eyes to make a story come that much more alive in the recesses of my mind. In case you thought I'm referring only to romances, think again. Historical and contemporary stories (whether they include any romance is not really the point)—in which the author firmly roots you to a time and place and convincingly shows you how their characters process the events around them and the relationships they're involved in—those are my favorite classics. I have quite a few examples, but I’m only going to share one, from historical fiction, so you can see what I mean.
I’m currently reading the fifth book in the Outlander series, The Fiery Cross. It might surprise many that I’m enjoying the language in these books more than I am the story. Jamie and Claire Fraser have an ageless romance, and if I were a fan of romance novels, I would be fairly happy with the ebbs and flows of theirs. What actually draws me in and keeps me there are the words Diana Gabaldon uses in the everyday happenings of the Fraser’s world. I particularly enjoy how she shows the time of day by describing how the light falls both indoors and out, how Claire troubleshoots a medical problem by mentally reciting what herbs and/or surgical implements she has on hand to handle it, or the Gaelic endearments Jamie sprinkles into his conversations with his wife that make me want to increase their use between characters in my novel using the ancient dialect they speak. There’s sensuality in many scenes and descriptions in The Fiery Cross, though what is surprisingly brilliant is how it even comes across in situations that at first don’t appear to have any sensuality.
For many of us, a package delivery is a regular occurrence, but to folks in pre-Revolutionary America, it’s a big deal. Here’s how Diana describes this not-so-everyday event for her readers: “The package arrived in August, by the good offices of Jethro Wainwright, one of the few itinerant peddlers with sufficient enterprise to ascend the steep and winding paths the led to the Ridge.” You don’t expect the humor from the name “Jethro Wainwright” or through words such as “sufficient enterprise”, which makes the reading of it all the more fun. An unusual sensuality comes in with “good offices”, “itinerant”, and “steep and winding”. You might disagree, but bear with me.
“Itinerant” has me wondering how Claire would size up Jethro, who is essentially homeless, as a man of influence, one with “good offices”. Those words make the gears in the ol’ gear box that is my brain churn more than if she’d said he was just a “decent enough vagabond who was a good climber”. Claire sees or knows something about this wanderer that the author doesn’t need to spell out for us in any significant way. However, the author uses the situation as a way to break up a mundane day in the lives of hard-working farmers and to inject some humor into it for her readers. And for someone like me who looks for something more, that je ne sais quoi quality when reading lines or reading between lines, I’m tickled the author has pleasantly surprised me in this way.
Good historical writing harkens back to the days of yore or Mr. Yeoman’s “yesteryear” without feeling heavy, or making me think hard about the true message behind a long-winded sentence. Neither does the sensuality of words have to mean delving into tomes full of purple prose. No one wants to wade knee-deep in run-on sentences that are meaningless or long words that a writer uses to show off their extensive vocabulary. “Help! I’m a 10-word sentence in a 40-word sentence trying to get out!” I think we’ve all seen a few too many of those in our reading life.
Finding that gem of a book that offers a light yet purposeful hand with sensuous, delicious language is like a dessert you don’t want to finish eating. These are the best kinds of desserts, ones that both the Slow Food and Slow Book Movements would heartily endorse.
Dear readers, go forth, eat well, and fear not this type of "word fat"—tis’ the good-for-you kind!