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To be read with alacrity

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n. brisk and cheerful readiness.

My new word today is one that I have read many times before, but would never have been able to give the precise definition of. When I check “alacrity” on my trusty kindle I find it is buried in there 23 times. 23 times! I have that sinking feeling; how can I not know exactly what this word means? Apparently I have read it in:

Daniel Deronda (George Eliot)

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Anne Brontë)

Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray)

The Devil’s Star (Jo Nesbø)

The Redeemer (Jo Nesbø)

How to be a Woman (Caitlin Moran)

Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)

Look At Me (Jennifer Egan)

White Fang (Jack London)

Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)

Not to mention books I don’t store electronically. Some of these I have even read multiple times! I have to shake the shame that is crawling over me and remember why I am doing this in the first place.

Now that I am collecting new words for this blog I find I am reading even more closely and making sure I fully understand. It is like learning a new language. I remember reading over French texts and being able to understand them without always knowing the exact translation or definition of many of the words and I had to force myself to go back and look them up in order that they became part of my own vocabulary. I guess it is the same with English. We get to a point where we stop simply absorbing the language. Our core vocabulary or personal dialect is set and we must really make the effort to learn new words.

This time I have had a breakthrough, and it happened coincidentally whilst reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin. The book had me right from the beginning; I was enjoying Chopin’s vivid descriptions and felt myself quickly being absorbed into the life of Mrs Pontellier.

I was on a roll, reading as fast as my eyes could trace the page, devouring the book as if it were written in fading ink and I found myself doing the inevitable yet undesirable: skim reading. This is a terrible habit I have, which came in useful at university but is not so helpful when reading a novel. I also find myself doing it whilst reading online, (maybe you do, too? Did you even read the last paragraph?) accustomed to short snippets of information I begin to scan the sentences for the most useful parts. I was hopping and skipping over a paragraph when something stopped me and I had to force myself to retrace my steps. Did I actually fully understand the sentence I had just “read”?

The quadroon was following them with little quick steps, having assumed a fictitious animation and alacrity for the occasion.

First of all I was halted by the word quadroon. The language of old books can often be shocking from a modern perspective and The Awakening (1899), whose commentary on the expectations of women are so forward-thinking, is full of these dated racial classifications. It reminds me of a Cuban novel I studied; Sab by Gertrudis Gómez Avellaneda. An anti-slavery story that also challenges the patriarchal institutions of the time, it of course contained many of the caste words which, if written nowadays, would certainly be racist.

So I was stuck, lingering over this phrase, and I found myself wondering just exactly what her ‘fictitious alacrity’ meant. I had to check the dictionary, and so it went on the list. I hope this will teach me to pay more attention to what I am reading, to savour each word, because it is in this way that I can truly connect with the author and with the novel.

P.S For some reason I really do not like the word alacrity. I find it strange to pronounce and I just don’t enjoy its sounds. Also it seems quite stale. How often is it used without the word ‘with’? Anne Brontë uses it 5 times in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, every one is ‘with alacrity’.


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