“You grok,” Smith repeated firmly. “I am explain. I did not have the word. You grok. Anne groks. I grok. The grass under my feet groks in happy beauty. But I needed the word. The word is God.”Robert A. Heinlein – Stranger in a Strange Land
Jubal shook his head to clear it. “Go ahead.”
Mike pointed triumphantly at Jubal. “Thou art God!”
I find it ironical that failure to communicate ideas (generally philosophical/religious ideas) always sends me scurrying back into the dusty cupboards of my mind, only to fall upon that phrase in the end.
I don’t think most people read; and even the ones who do read don’t seem to understand what it is they are reading. I myself find that I don’t read a lot of the things presented to me these days. When I say read I mean read as in, take the time to soak up the words. Don’t just look at the surface meanings of the particular words, but really understand the meaning of the words as arranged on the page.
To grok the text as it exists.
The tons of text presented to us each day in today’s world precludes us from spending time thinking about what the words mean, What we mean in the words we choose, what the author chooses. So we skim. We assume intent on the part of the writer, trust that the structure will lead in a predictable direction, and skip to the ending to assure ourselves our assumptions were correct.
Gone are the days of laying on the floor in the sun-illumined dust, turning pages in earnest, breathlessly exploring the bounds of knowledge. Now it’s electronic pre-determinism and endless counter-attack against ideas we aren’t even sure our opponents are supporting, but we think it’s there in the text we didn’t actually take time to read.
Listening to a book isn’t reading it. It is a valuable experience to be read to, I’m not knocking that. I have read whole series of books to my children, some of them more than once. A good reader can add himself to the work, making it more than it was when written. But then it isn’t the work as the writer intended it, just as the movie isn’t the written word either.
You cannot grok the intent of the writer through headphones, listening while you are doing something else. Suddenly the reader seems to be editorializing on your ability to fold towels, the words interwoven with the task you were performing, the two inextricably interwoven in your memory. When you try to recall the subject, suddenly you feel like doing laundry or walking the dog. Why does thinking about that lecture bring up images from a video game?
To understand the meaning of the words, you have to read the words in the form they were written in, to get a feel for each individual character and it’s placement in the word, the word in the sentence, the sentence in the paragraph, because that is how the idea came to the writer in the first place.
That is how you Grok. But don’t expect me to agree with you, the writer, just because I understand you. That is a whole different set of problems.
Editor’s note. I know what Heinlein was driving at with his novel Stranger in a Strange Land and with the invention of the word grok. It is the same sort of thing that Ayn Rand tried for when she claimed Objectivist as the label for her philosophy, but Heinlein was an experienced enough writer to understand that if you used the word understand or any other extant word of the time, the reader would substitute the meanings they wanted for the word instead of using the meaning that he wanted the word to have.
It is a clever little dance that writers go through when composing their works. You try out and discard a dozen words sometimes, looking for the one that fits exactly to the meaning that you want the word to have in that place and time. I am rarely satisfied with my word choices, and will edit and re-edit and re-re-edit indefinitely if I don’t hit publish and move on. So I hit publish a lot, and then when I go back I cringe at how I worded whatever it was, and the re-re-re-editing commences.
I know Stranger in a Strange Land and the word grok because I read that book in the sunshine of a bright series of days, as dust motes spiralled lazily through the air. I read it while stoned and I read it again sober (or maybe it was the other way round) and I kept reading it until I understood why RAH put each word where he put it and why. That was how I read anything, back in the day.
So I understand what RAH meant when he created grok to hold the meaning that he wanted. I simply fail to explain the concept any better than he did in his book. This is what happens when you try to compete with a master.