Some late night over the next few days, two or three and maybe even more of my students will start in on one of Colson Whitehead's novels and become a little unsettled and disturbed by what they read. Whitehead's Zone One (2011) is a zombie novel, but it's his other scary work, The Intuitionist (1998) that will raise frustrations, insecurities, and even slight fears among readers. For years now, Whitehead's expansive vocabulary, on full display in his first novel, has presented challenges for large numbers of my students.
"He's always using words that no one knows the meaning of," one student said to me years ago when I asked her why she found the book troubling.
"You have to have a dictionary with you just to read his book," a student from a different course said expressing frustration over Whitehead's "big words."
Lately, I've encouraged students to embrace, rather than become frustrated about, the words we come across in the novel. Taking the time to learn new words can slow the process of completing the book; at the same time though, doing so can make the re-reading process more rewarding.
On a larger level, it's no small coincidence that students at my university might have difficulty with aspects of the language of the novel given that so many of them come from low-income and struggling home environments and "failing" schools. Researchers and journalists have noted the "32-Million Word Gap" and the "poverty of words," whereby children of professionals tend to gain exposure to a larger number of words than children with less well-to-do parents. Further, I imagine relatively few students, of any background, have had much experience reading a "dizzyingly-high-concept" novel produced by an African American.
Whitehead's The Intuitionist can prompt necessary and perhaps scary conversations about why so many of us seem underexposed to big words and high concepts presented by black writers.