I like a reading challenge once in a while. And I like helping my kids (a little) with their English, writing, reading and literature assignments. But I wasn't prepared for this.
My high school sophomore asked me to read – or more precisely, to help him comprehend -- a 10-page scholarly literary essay he was assigned to read about The Catcher in the Rye. I barely made it through three pages. In those first three pages, I found nearly a dozen words I have never seen. That’s okay, I enjoy learning new words. But what bothered me was that I couldn’t even begin to guess at their meaning – not even a little bit from context, and not from the word itself, not a clue, not even a hint of a common Latin root.
The author had also included no less than 10 literary, film and cultural references in those three pages – I knew and could explain only five, and the other five had us running to the dictionary, the web and my 84-year-old mother who knows the complete script of most 1940s movies. Don’t get me started on the overlong sentence lengths and foreign spellings. And did I mention the proliferation of dashes, colons, semi-colons, and parentheses?
In between all of this scurrying about, scratching our heads and sighs of frustration, I wondered: what was the writer thinking? When a piece of writing – especially one which is supposed to help shed light on something, to help people understand a text which may be confusing -- is itself so obscure, so overwrought with $25 words, so clearly intended to showcase nothing but the writer’s overinflated sense of superiority, then who is it serving? Certainly not the reader. My son told me his chemistry teacher once said: The only reason to design a test a genius can’t pass is to prove you can design a test that a genius can’t pass. Or, as Holden might have put it: "What a phony."
Writers, let’s all take note and vow to keep it simple. Or at least comprehensible.