This is part of the weekly Blogging Challenge over at Long and Short Reviews. If you'd like to participate, you can find the prompts here. They also put up a post every Wednesday where you go and link your response -- and see everyone else's. Check out their homepage to find it.
The challenge for this week is "book with the most words you had to look up."
So, right... let me take you back on a journey of memory, into the dim and distant past where the truth of things is now lost to legends and forgetfulness. Join my fourteen-year-old, athletic-but-nerdy goth self in ninth grade, in English class. Add some sort eighties pop/metal soundtrack, if you like.
Now, English wasn't my only class, obviously. I was taking geometry, I think, and both Spanish and Latin. (Yes, I know, and you're right: as a matter of fact, I did have to go back and completely redo one page of a Spanish test in tenth grade because I'd been conjugating the verbs after the Latin patterns.) There were other classes, too: Earth Science, the very early stages of computer science... but those aren't as relevant here, and anyway it all sort of runs together anymore.
Anyway, there we were in Ninth Grade English, and we started on the reading for the spring semester: The Scarlet Pimpernel. Honestly, this should have been completely my jam: sword fights, escapes, disguises, secret identities, commonalities with Zorro and Batman... But there was a problem.
Someone had left a copy of it in a desk the previous year. I'd already read it, and I said as much.
Now, my high school was... unusual... and this is a perfect example of how and why. The English teacher did not say, "Too bad, read along anyway." Instead she said, "Huh. Okay." And apparently she went off and consulted with my other teachers, because two days later when I came into the classroom she called me up to the front and handed me The Name of the Rose. "Here," she said, or something to that effect. "While we're reading The Scarlet Pimpernel in class, I expect you to be reading this. And Mister M expects you to translate the Latin. You'll be reporting to him on that part." Mister M was, of course, my Latin teacher.
So I launched into it, and it was... intriguing. And I made notes as I went along, so I could report to my English teacher about my general progress; and every time the text delivered some classical quotation I hauled out the Latin/English dictionary and gave it a go, and passed those -- original and my translation -- back to Mister M. Until...
I hit a passage that I absolutely could not decipher. It wasn't that I couldn't parse the grammar or resolve the verb tense or fill in the missing pronouns; I literally could not translate any of the words. The narrator was remembering -- and referring to -- a three-sentence passage from some classical source, and I couldn't make sense of it at all.
Finally, I gave up and -- book in hand -- caught Mister M between classes. "What am I doing wrong?" I asked, opening the book and showing him that quote. "What does it say?"
He read it over. Twice. Then he said, "Ah. Take that one to Ms. Mueller."
I hadn't interacted much with Ms. Mueller; I didn't have any classes under her, but that still gave me some sense of where I'd gone wrong: she taught German. And even then... well, she looked at it, blinked about four times in rapid succession, read it again, and said: "This is in Old High German. I can't really... it's something about..." and she gave me her best guess.
All of this, obviously, was before you could feign erudition by consulting Google; heck, at this point Telnet was still barely a thing, and the idea of electronic mail (or e-mail) was part of the Brave New World being discussed by science geeks in army labs who frankly didn't get out much. There were BBS systems, but you had to dial into them with your modem and they only had whatever information the person running them (out of their house, usually) had seen fit to include -- which could be anything from a sophisticated explanation of high-order physics to a diatribe about how Dungeons and Dragons Evil Lurks -- Look Out! (I actually had a dot-matrix print-out of that one, and I still regret losing it; it had a sort of hilarious social-historical value...) So basically, references weren't easy to come by and I had to do my translating myself.
Eventually, of course, I finished the book and then -- a year or two later -- watched the movie. While I regard them both as time well spent, they are also experiences that I will never subject myself to again; the image of the End of the World portrayed as the library burning down was a lot more traumatic than I'm entirely comfortable admitting.
But that was the book that I had to look up the most words for: The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco.