One last note about vocabulary learning: you will meet new words all the time in your textual explorations. Don’t pause and look up every word like this guy apparently does*, but rather try to figure out a rough meaning from context. If the word is important enough, you’ll see it again, and you’ll be able to sharpen the word’s meaning. The more you see the word, the sharper its meaning will become, and eventually you’ll know it without having to pause at all.
That’s just one of the benefits of reading both deeply and widely.
*The article says that reading with book in one hand and dictionary in the other is an “old English major’s habit.” As an old English major myself, I can say that this is not typical of the behavior of any English major I studied with.
I heard this excellent interview with basketball great Walt “Clyde” Frazier on NPR yesterday. He discusses a number of topics, but one that I felt was most important for my reader(s) was the importance of vocabulary. As his basketball career was winding down, he realized that he needed to sound smart if he wanted to be a broadcaster. To augment his word-hoard, he devoted himself to reading theater reviews, figuring that the vocabulary used to describe excellent and awful performances onstage could be modified to characterize performances on the court.
The writing section of the test is incredibly teachable: learn to do a few simple tricks, and you can boost your score by hundreds of points. Reading is a different beast entirely. Because it requires you to untangle the meanings of complicated sentences, you have to know the meanings of words that constitute those sentences, not just their grammatical status.
So I have bad news: you probably need to study vocabulary. If you are an avowed reader who tirelessly treks through mountains of books every year, congratulations, this advice probably isn’t true. I barely glanced at vocab lists before diving into the SAT, and I was somehow able to score a perfect 800 on the Critical Reading section. But I was also reading scholarly analyses of T.S. Eliot’s poetry during driving school in tenth grade. You were not. Trust me: study a vocabulary list. The most efficient one is the Direct Hits series.
You could also try to read some Modernist poetry. Or even some non-Modernist poetry. Just read. See the words that you learn on the lists in the wild, roaming free on the pale savannas in your book. Identify them there. Tag them and remember their meaning. The next time you stumble upon one, you will recognize it more readily. Eventually, you’ll have your own private menagerie of exotic words.