There's an assumption held by many that we're supposed to stop reading when we encounter words we don't know and look those words up in the dictionary. Maybe our English teachers told us to do this. Maybe we read it in a self-help book. Maybe, in a fit of conscientious intention, we set it as a personal goal. But it's an awfully hard practice to keep up.
When you're reading, and especially when you're reading something good, the last thing you want to do is interrupt an author's flow. Chances are, you'll just ride a context wave, grasping at whatever understanding you can cobble together from context clues and moving on once you have the gist of what the author is trying to say. Like vacuuming the coils on the back of the refrigerator, looking up words in the dictionary as you read is the kind of dictum you get from magazines, don't follow, and feel slightly guilty about when you're hear it mentioned again.
What if it turns out that by riding the context wave, you've been learning words the right way all along?
What distinguishes great, and even good, writers, is their masterful handling of words. The specificity with which they use each one can teach us nearly as much about that word as we might get from a dictionary definition. And in many cases, the way in which a master writer uses words will give us information that goes beyond what the dictionary tells us in the form of subtle cues as to when and how it's appropriate for that word to be used.
Consider undulating, which appears in Toni Morrison's novel Beloved. The definition reads "moving in a wavy pattern or with a rising and falling motion." But our understanding of the word deepens when Morrison writes,
Paul D tied his shoes together, hung them over his shoulder and followed her through the door straight into a pool of red and undulating light that locked him where he stood.
We see that undulating can be used to describe light, and also that it can describe a motion inside a pool. What comes in pools besides light? Water. Which, not coincidentally, is often said to be undulating as well. We're forming associations with undulate and water, undulate and light, undulate and pools, undulate and waves, and, in the larger context of the novel, undulate and ethereal phenomena.
All this is to say two things:
1) It's okay to sit back and ride the context wave. Don't beat yourself up when you see an unfamiliar word in your reading and don't jump to a dictionary. Sit with the word for a second, relax, take a deep breath, see what you can learn, and keep reading. Look it up only if you're actually curious or if you really can't understand the author's meaning without doing so.
2) Make sure to take advantage of the opportunities to learn words from the pens of great writers with our collection of literature-based Vocabulary Lists. You don't have to be reading Beloved to learn the vocabulary from it. Morrison's context examples that appear on our list are things of beauty in and of themselves. Just reading through her words will give you a taste of her subject matter, too, as they evoke a heady, melancholic ghost story mood: see malevolent. bereft, resurrection, roil, and of course undulate. Why not add them to your learning today!