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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 14 Jan 2005 09:51:06 -0600
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by John
Evans. This review presents a challenge for plain text formatting required
of the Forum email list because this novel is written with boldfaced words
and italicized boldfaced words that are an important element of the book.
Such formatting is lost in plain text email versions and is replaced by
underscores. For this reason, Forum subscribers may prefer to read this
review from the web version which retains this formatting at:


_Test of Time: A Novel Approach to the SAT and ACT_. By Charles Harrington
Elster. Harcourt, Inc. Pp. xix + 420. Paperback. $14.00. ISBN 0-15-601137-9.

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
the TwainWeb Bookstore, and purchases from this site generate commissions
that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit

The Amazon link for this book is:

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
John D. Evans

Copyright (c) 2005 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

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.