Copyright © 2005 Mark Twain Forum
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John D. Evans
Charles Harrington Elster is a writer, broadcaster, and a lover of words. His books include There's a Word for It, The Big Book of Mispronunciations, and Tooth and Nail: A Novel Approach to the SAT. His articles on language and vocabulary have appeared in many publications including the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and The San Diego Union-Tribune. He has appeared on hundreds of radio shows in various parts of the country talking about language, and he has been interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered, Talk of the Nation, and Weekend Edition. From 1998 to 2003, Mr. Elster co-hosted his own weekly radio show on language, A Way with Words.
Test of Time: A Novel Approach to the SAT and ACT is Elster's second book designed to help high school students prepare for two highly regarded college entrance examinations: the SAT, which measures aptitude and ability, and ACT, which assesses achievement. Over the years, the creators of the SAT have been recycling the words used on the test--a pattern not missed by those who publish test preparation manuals. Various publications offer lists ranging from 500 "high frequency" words to 4,000 words previously used on the test. In 2005, the SAT discontinued the analogies portion of the test greatly reducing the need to memorize those 4,000 words. In its place, the SAT now includes "Critical Reading" and an essay question. Literal comprehension, sentence completion, and understanding words in context are skills measured by the tests and so developing a good working vocabulary is still a very good way to prepared for both.
There are two ways for a reader to increase vocabulary. The first and most labor intensive method is to study a word in isolation using a dictionary or similar resource. The other method, and by far the most common, is to learn words in context by reading, reading, and more reading. There are heated debates concerning the number of meaningful contacts a person must have with a word before it becomes part of one's vocabulary, but six is often mentioned as a threshold number for acquisition. The reader encounters a new word in context and, using surrounding clues, gains a feel for the meaning of the word. Each subsequent encounter refines and adjusts the definition which, if need be, can ultimately be verified by consulting a dictionary. Many factors, including the background of the reader, the quality of the context clues, and the interval between contacts, determine how quickly and accurately a reader takes possession of a word.
For students preparing for the SAT, time is a valuable commodity that cannot be wasted reading untold volumes of material with the hope of encountering those 4,000 words at random often enough to learn the words through context. The only alternative is to study those words in isolation, looking at each word and memorizing its definition, use, and etymology. It is a daunting task, and it is here that Charles Harrington Elster steps in with his "novel approach" to save the day.
Test of Time: A Novel Approach to the SAT and ACT places 2,000 SAT words in context using a time travel/adventure story featuring Mark Twain who is plucked from his Hartford home in 1883 and deposited in modern day Hadleyburg through a computer-generated wormhole in the fabric of time. Twain's manuscript of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has also made the trip into the future and falls into many hands. Reuniting Twain with his novel and getting him back to his own time period provide the story line. For the Twain enthusiast, Charles Harrington Elster's research and knowledge of Twain's life and times provide an element of entertainment that may be lost on the lay reader. The accuracy of the description of Twain's Hartford home is apparent to anyone who has been there. Twain's associates and contemporaries have their counterparts in Hadleyburg as do some of his fictional characters. A character appropriately named Hank Morgan inadvertently creates a wormhole to Hadleyburg. Once there, Twain meets Merlin, a computer wizard and son of Blanche Paige, a librarian intent on destroying Twain's controversial manuscript. Twain encounters identical twins nicknamed the Prince and the Pauper, two rapscallions not unlike the King and the Duke. A villainous character is a descendant of Bret Harte, and Twain's personal secretary, Isabel Lyon, appears as a pierced and punky college senior studying Twain. Her advisor is a Twain scholar aptly named Justin Shelley. Quotations and witticisms of Twain pepper the narrative which also contains references to anecdotes from his life--all of which adds to the fun for fans of Twain.
For those reading the novel in preparation for the SAT and ACT, test words are printed in boldface and can be found in the glossary which provides a definition and the page numbers where the word can be found in context. Words used frequently by the SAT are marked with an asterisk.
Test of Time is not a comfortable read for several reasons. First, the boldfaced words (as many as 27 per page) leap from the narrative, screaming for attention and distracting the reader from enjoying the story line. The novel trips over itself trying to accomplish two goals that apparently nullify each other. As a useful study aid for the SAT, it must, by its expressed purpose, present more than 2,000 unfamiliar words each with sufficient context for the reader to get a feel for the definition. As a novel crafted to save the student from the tedium of memorizing a list of words, it becomes tedious to read by the very presence of those words. Although the author successfully provides context clues for most of the words, he is guilty of what can best be termed contextual mismanagement on several occasions. In one sentence he refers to a "commodious women's bathroom," a phrase almost guaranteed to send high school students off to the SATs with the impression that "commodious" means full of commodes. In another, perused, a word frequently used informally to mean "to gloss over," is used in the sentence "They [students] were . . . skimming vast tomes that should have been perused weeks ago." If Elster had written, "skimming vast tomes instead of perusing them" he would have presented a more obvious use of an antonym as a context clue. At times, words are presented without any context at all as in this passage:
For the next hour he tried every technique he could think of to compel himself to forget about the nemesis lurking in the stairway and to go to sleep. But nothing worked, not even trying to comprehend the arid, tedious prose of Aimees's sociology textbook with its vague and ponderous abstractions and bloated bombastic words like implementation, utilization, and methodology (169).
These examples support the author's recommendation that the definitions should be checked in the glossary, and the pronunciations should be checked using a dictionary. This advice, although sound, contradicts the premise of this book, which is to make preparing for the SAT a painless process without studying the words in isolation.
Similarly, the injection of so many words into the narrative has a negative impact on the book as a novel making it less than engaging to read despite the well-conceived plotline. Dialogue should reveal character and scenes should move the plot forward, but the characters, most of whom share the author's love and knowledge of words, seem to march into each scene armed with a thesaurus and assault each other, and the reader, with dialogue such as: "That's an affront to your intelligence. Only a perfunctory scientist is content to work within the pedestrian and circumscribed domain of the possible."
As vehicles for vocabulary, the characters serve their purpose, but as well defined, believable personalities struggling within the conflicts of the plot, they simply do not measure up. They seem pretentious and bombastic, and attempts to humanize them and make them appealing to high school students create confusing inconsistencies. In one exchange of dialogue, Hank Morgan, a college student, transforms from William F. Buckley ("Oh, degradation most foul!") to a name calling Bart Simpson ("Booger biter.") in the space of three paragraphs. Likewise, several scenes in the book serve only as venues for vocabulary in which the characters engage in word play and discussions of word origins.
Simply put, this book cannot serve two masters. It cannot be an effective study
aid without those 2,000 SAT words, and it has a difficult time being an enjoyable
read with them. To his credit, Charles Harrington Elster has made a valiant
attempt to fill a need for students preparing for college entrance examinations.
It is truly a novel approach and it provides high school students with another
choice in improving their vocabulary. Whether or not students embrace this approach
and find success using it will be known only after a test of time.