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Charles Harrington Elster, Test of Time: A Novel Approach to the SAT and the ACT (New York: Harcourt, 2004, $14.00, xix+420 pages, ISBN 0-15-601137-9)—Mathilde Arrivé, Université Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux III

 

Charles Harrington Elster likes to be called names such as lexicograph, lexicomane, logophile, verbomaniac and the like. By calling him so, you are already taking part in the exercise, no doubt building up your vocabulary and ensuring your admission in college.

Charles Harrington Elster is a writer, broadcaster and occasional contributor to the “On Language” column of the New York Times Magazine. His second book, Test of Time, is meant to help high school students to prepare for college entrance examinations, the SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) and the ACT (American College Testing Assessment). Providing standardized means of comparison (multiple-choice test, sentence completion, critical reading, grid-in questions) these exams are designed to measure the students’ “academic achievement,” which in turn will determine their admission in college. I shall not discuss here the validity of such a selection process, even if it would not be completely off the point given that the SAT and ACT give Elster’s book its purpose and, ultimately, its raison d’être, while in turn, the book consolidates the legitimacy and ensures the continuation of such selection processes. Or perhaps the preparation for college entrance examinations is just a pretext, an artful strategy on the part of the author aimed at appealing to young people by pandering to their pragmatic, not to say utilitarian, approach to reading. At least, with Test of Time, they’ve got a book that serves a purpose.

With this second book, Charles Harrington Elster carries still further what he coined as his “novel approach” to test preparation. Someone won over by Mr. Elster’s art of quibbling could argue that this approach is not so “novel”—because Test of Time is the second of its kind (after Tooth and Nail, Harcourt, 1994)—and not that “novelistic,” whether in spirit, in intention or in form. As a “novel approach,” Test of Time is indeed quite difficult to label, at least in term of the traditional genre categories. As is usual with combined works, Elster defines his book by stating what it is not, or not exactly. Indeed, Test of Time is not a reference book, not a manual, not a exercise book, not a dictionary—though part of it is a glossary—and, ultimately, not a novel.

To Elster’s credit, Test of Time is less systematic, more dynamic than a dictionary, as it carries with it the notion that a word extracted from its context of production, its pragmatics, its situatedness (to quote Bakhtin) is virtually inert. A word does not only refer, but takes on meaning as it interacts with other words when uttered by a specific speaker, and that is why Charles Harrington Elster makes it a point to contextualize SAT and ACT words. Ample use is made of dialogues—which make up a good third of the text. There is also a deliberate wish to mix registers, levels, lexicons, styles, regional dialects and tones in a textual medley where high-flown polysyllabic, technical, acronymic words and neologisms coexist, together with swearwords, words made up for the occasion, slang words and conversational language, to the point that Test of Time could well be regarded as one long word contest. Charles Harrington Elster seems to say that a word is a word, and as such already deserves his and our full attention. No doubt there is also the desire to unsettle our belief in a linguistic hierarchy and to deflate the sacred, untouchable, unspeakable literary vocabulary by inserting it into everyday language.

Interestingly, in Test of Time, all linguistic layers making up the American language are represented, from the archaic to the utmost contemporary creations, including the indigenous side of American English, inherited from the colonial period. The book is meant to be panoramic in form, comprehensive in scope. Ironically, most of the “complex” or “unheard of” words highlighted in the book are those of Latin etymology, therefore the most transparent ones for a French person; for example, “to discern” [33], “flamboyant” [95], “to acquiesce” [105], “circumspect” [145], “conscientious” [188], “to eradicate” [196], “to emanate” [215], “alacrity” [216], to pick up just a few. The Saxon linguistic heritage seems therefore to have achieved easier incorporation and “acculturation” than the Latin one. The latter is invariably relegated to technical, specific fields or high-flown literary texts, or, for that matter, to college entrance examinations. One can only deplore their being exhumed as if they were museum pieces. The fact that they have to be bold faced, listed in a glossary, along with their definitions and proper spelling and pronunciations, hammered into high school students’ heads and subject to such campaigns of rehabilitation indicates that they are on their way towards total disappearance. The underlying question, in relation to the title, seems to be as follows: do words endure, stand the “test of time” or do words merely die out?

Behind his desire to reconcile levels—both linguistic and temporal—lies Mr. Elster’s boundless admiration for Mark Twain and the maestro’s literary audacity. Not only is Mark Twain the central character, structurally crucial as far as the plot and the content of the book go, but he is also the inspirer of the book in its very form. Yet, it is an ambitious but risky business to emulate such a writer as Mark Twain. It is not enough to fictionalize him as the main character to get his verve. And even if the idea of combining the literary, the technical and the colloquial is interesting, it is sometimes clumsily contrived. Since Test of Time resorts quite systematically to this same device and heavily relies on it for its effects, it exhausts it to the point that Mr. Elster’s writing turns into mannerism, not to say a caricature of the Twain-like style. Indeed, Charles Harrington Elster piles up words for the sake of the exercise to the point that the combination of words becomes artificial, and the stylistic inventiveness is superseded by the original didactic intention, as on page 92:

 

[H]ow is it possible, even conceivable that an ordinary, humble cigar—just a transient diversion, an ephemeral gratification, a transitory scrap of satisfaction in this vale of tears—could be so dear? [92, Elster’s boldface]

On top of sounding slightly unnatural, those SAT words seem to be where they do no belong. Words in context is a good prerequisite, but sometimes the context is not so adequate to the meaning of the word, leading to lexical “mismanagement.” Sometimes also, context and contextualization are disposed of and replaced by an accumulative arrangement which fails to clarify the meaning of the SAT words in boldface:

 

[N]othing worked, not even trying to comprehend the arid, tedious prose of Aimee’s sociology textbook with its vague and ponderous abstractions and bloated bombastic words like implementation, utilization and methodology. [169]

What is symptomatic is that synonyms usually appear in lists, which counters the otherwise committed pledge for authenticity, as on page 117: “It was rancid, rank and malodorous,” or page 223: “it was about the most ridiculous, inane, foolishly meandering and desultory conversation that Twain had ever heard.” As far as typography goes, 2.000 words in bold face pepper the book, which, as purists may argue, hinders fluid reading, especially if one refers to the glossary at the end of the book, which interrupts the sequential, linear reading of the story. Therefore we may wonder whether the spirit of playfulness and freshness supposedly presiding over the writing and reading of the book is not undermined by the awkward system of cross-reference to the glossary.

To conclude on the “status” and “intentions” of Test of Time, one may say it is not strictly educational and not strictly literary either. Test of Time is an attempt to devise an in-between, in the form of a textbook-cum-novel. The initial idea of conciliation of the literary and the instructional is honorable but hardly workable in actual practice. Both aims only invalidate one another. And the literary dimension is the one to suffer most from the forced marriage. Test of Time is “readerly,” and in the end, readable and accessible with its handy paperback format. To that extent, no doubt it perfectly meets its objectives and probably turns out extremely enjoyable and beneficial to high school students, but also to beginners in English as well as foreigners.


Whether or not Mr. Elster indeed claims an intellectual filiation with Montaigne, the idea lying behind Test of Time is ambitious: it reactivates the humanistic aspiration of our enlightened philosophers to “instruct and entertain,” whereby knowledge is more appealing in the guise of fun, whereby untutored souls are all the more likely to learn when they do not know they do. In its twentieth- and twenty-first-century version, the motto “learn and have fun” has developed through the emergence of new, liberal educational, pedagogic and didactic strategies which have proved to work well. And yet, by systematically putting forward the imperative of fun, it also discredits that of effort, mistaken as tediousness, to the extent that one could easily forget that effort remains a dynamic, challenging and gratifying aspect of learning. One could wonder whether, in the end, such theories do not tend to dissociate instruction and entertainment instead of reconciling the two as they were initially designed to do.

The reading contract is made quite clear in the preface—a didactic, somewhat condescending prolegomena explaining how to use the book, its system of bold face and its handy glossary for definitions. Yet, what is less explicit is Charles Harrington Elster’s campaign in favor of the English language. He can hardly conceal his missionary impulse and his idea that teaching English civilizes the world “against the darkness of illiteracy” and “make the world a better place,” by “rescuing them [young minds] from inarticulateness and banality and deliver them from error” [quoted from “How English Teachers Can Save the World”, a speech delivered to the San Diego chapter of the California Association of teachers of English]. Charles Harrington Elster is probably driven by a conservative impulse towards the preservation of linguistic heritage—a sensible inclination in the face of the linguistic economy of text-messages, technical jargon and Internet chats. In Test of Time, Charles Harrington Elster builds into the diegesis two models students with two distinct approaches to language. In this binary typology, the Prince—this is the name of the buffoon—mistakes one word for another, blundering, confusing “euthanasia” and “euphemism” [235], causing Mark Twain to laugh unreservedly, though such malapropism is so gross that it loses some of its farcical effect. At the other hand of the spectrum is Angela, Mr. Elster’s spokesperson in the book. She has the “good attitude” towards words and vocabulary acquisition. Mark Twain himself is a grateful student: “you’ve taught me a new word, and learning a new word is always a cause for celebration.” [122]

 

On account of knowing that word I am a changed man [...] You have uplifted an entire category of human experience—and a universal category of human experience—from the shrouded, veiled, Cimmerian realm of the Inexpressible into the clear, comforting, lucid light of the Known! [123]

Character Mark Twain thus gives voice to Mr. Elster’s own enthusiasm and high-pitched belief that one enlarges one’s world when one enlarges one’s vocabulary. The didactic tone slightly verges on the injunctive when Angela enjoins Mark Twain to look up a word in the dictionary, adding, “and don’t forget to check the pronunciation.” [124]. Doing so, Angela enables Mr. Elster to use her diegetic voice to address his young readers, as if to remind absent-minded readers, in case they forgot, that they are involved in vocabulary acquisition. Angela describes her passion for words in the following terms:

 

I have a writer’s love of words. I love the stories of words—their etymology—and I’m fascinated with the breadth of the English language, how comprehensive its vocabulary is. There seems to be a word for almost everything. It’s just a matter of finding it. [122]

Obliquely, Charles Harrington Elster makes clear his own position towards language. Though his passion is genuine, we may regret that it consists in a basically formal or formalist interest for words, for their form, spelling, pronunciation and etymology. And as far as the meaning of words is concerned, it is tidily preserved in a glossary. Mr. Elster’s approach to words is fundamentally descriptive and functional—an approach which ignores the creative, poetic use of language and its ensuing unsettling of meaning. In Test of Time, there is no epistemological questioning of the stability of words, no way out from the mere surface of their form.


In the end, perhaps it is slightly unfair to find faults with a book that has no other pretension than to help students prepare their examinations by way of an entertaining, lively, fresh, brainteasing story. And though the book will probably not stand the “test of time,” it pays an original tribute to another book that did stand the test, inviting readers to rediscover Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

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