I have an abiding and foolish affection for old mass-market paperbacks that promise to improve one’s vocabulary or writing. No doubt such books play upon a reader’s sense of intellectual and social inferiority. (Is your vocabulary holding you back?) Still, I like the idea that the ordinary citizen, long out of school, might step into a candy-cigarettes-newspapers store, walk over to the paperback rack, and pick out a book to become a better reader or speaker or writer. That effort seems to me a happy blend of self-knowledge, humility, and optimism.
Here is a wonderful passage from one such book, Wilfred Funk and Norman Lewis’s 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. It was published by Funk & Wagnalls in 1942, became a Pocket Book paperback in 1949, and went through sixty-one printings before a 1971 revision. My copy, which my son Ben found for me, is from 1971:
From now on we want you to look at words intently, to be inordinately curious about them and to examine them syllable by syllable, letter by letter. They are your tools of understanding and self-expression. Collect them. Keep them in condition. Learn how to handle them. Develop a fastidious, but not a fussy, choice. Work always toward good taste in their use. Train your ear for their harmonies.Consider it done. Thanks, Ben.
We urge you not to take words for granted just because they have been part of your daily speech since childhood. You must examine them. Turn them over and over as though you were handling a coin, and see the seal and superscription on each one. We would like you actually to fall in love with words.