Monday, November 11, 2013

Ekphrasis and Bildungsroman

While you’re reading do you always stop at an unfamiliar and look up its meaning right away?  Or do you jot it down on a handy piece of paper and say to yourself that you’ll find its definition later? Perhaps you just read on and figure out its meaning from its context?
While reading a review of Donna Tartt’s novel “The Goldfinch” in the New Yorker I came across “ekphrasis,” a word I’d never seen before.  I scribbled it on a piece of scrap paper and laid it aside.  Here it is a few weeks later and I have finally decided to see what it means.  

From a definition of ekphrasis:  “a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art.”  I don’t know if I’ll ever use “ekphrasis” in writing or in conversation, but at least I’ll remember what it means if I come across it again.

Like “bildungsroman.”  Because I don’t come across it very often I have to stop for a second to recall that it means a novel that charts the development of the main character’s mind and character from childhood through various experiences into maturity.  A few examples of a bildungsroman: “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (Betty Smith), “The Catcher in the Rye” (J.D. Salinger), “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (Stephen Chbosky), “Someone” (Alice McDermott), and “Portnoy’s Complaint” (Philip Roth).

Every year at this time people select books for gift-giving and many a bildungsroman will be among them.  Word-A-Day calendars also make the gift lists.  I’ll check but I doubt “ekphrasis” will be among the pages.