A few evenings ago I was talking with an editor who described, quite beautifully, the plot of a novel that he had recently acquired. In doing so, he used the word “reify,” which is a wonderful word, but one that seldom shows up in flap copy–usual suspects being adjectives like “luminous,” “compelling,” “masterful,” etc. I said as much, and he laughed good-naturedly, and said that as an assistant (at a venerable and highly serious house, mind you) a marketing director had nixed his use of the adjective “Swiftian” in a book description. I could relate. My first week of work as an editorial assistant, I marveled at the erudition of the editors around me who described the project under discussion, a proposal for a book on meditation, as “very much in the vein of Thomas More.” Impressive. In the meeting minutes, which I was taking, I carefully noted the comparison title was the political tract Utopia by the sixteenth century English saint/statesman, which (fortuitously!) I had had to read in service of a survey course. And not, however, Care of the Soul, the New York Times bestseller published a year or so earlier by super-successful spirituality author Thomas Moore. This entry on the widely-circulated minutes earned me some funny looks from my colleagues, plus a gentle but firm recommendation from my boss that I should start updating my comp title frame of reference. Fast.
This was, in fact, not the only moment in which I suspected I might be ill-served by my alternate life as a graduate student in literature. When I had first interviewed for the position assisting an editor who managed the women’s fiction list, I had earnestly expounded on my favorite feminist writers; I cited a veritable Norton anthology of names, which grew longer and more frantic as I noted the editor’s increasingly bemused expression. When she explained that the kind of women’s fiction she was talking about was mostly romance and romantic suspense, I believe I may have mumbled something about reading Gone with the Wind, but probably retreated into stricken silence. How it was that she hired me, I’m not sure. In any case, working in women’s fiction was as good a starting point as any to discover that the business of acquiring books and the business of studying them, did not, apparently, have much to do with one another. As it became obvious that what I had thought would be a felicitous overlap in interdependent fields were in fact two divergent career paths, I took a semester off from the doctoral program, cast my lot with Thomas Moore, and never looked back. Until, that is, the other evening when the editor with whom I was talking used the word “reify.”
Whenever I run across it, in a reaction either Proustian or Pavlovian, I am instantly transported back to the days when, as a distraction from wrestling with the works of theorists whose books appeared to be in English but were not, I kept a running list of words that seldom occur outside of graduate school. My favorite was “reify,” but others included “problematic” when used as a noun, or “problemetize” (a verb); “vexed” (usually describing an idea), e.g.”The narrative is a vexed one…” foreground” but only as a verb, as in “I’d like to foreground the problematic…”and “fraught” but only when unaccompanied by “with,” as in “The text is fraught.”
Proust had his madeleine cakes and I have my grad-school word list. I wonder if anyone else out there has such nostalgic associations with particular words–if so, I’d love to hear them.
Speaking of nostalgia, I just read Joanna Smith Rakoff’s wonderful debut novel, A Fortunate Age. The book, published by Scribner, is an updating of and homage to Mary McCathy’s The Group, set against the rise and resounding “pop” of the dot com bubble in New York–an era when 24-year-old new media millionaires were poster children for an economy freed from antiquated, mellow-harshing rules, and Williamsburg Brooklyn was the locus of a self-conscious hipsterism and attendant abuse of trucker hats. She captures a time and place I remember well with dead-on accuracy. I’m curious to know if folks reading this have their own nominees for books that capture the zeitgeist of a particular time and place.