Former President Obama’s recent summer reading list reminded me of how much I pick up fresh insights from seeing what books others recommend. When I finish several months’ worth of reading, I’ll pass along my takes on those works to anyone who cares to listen, simply because I believe in the power of the written word. Writer Cheryl Strayed said she was seven years old when she understood that, as Margaret Atwood wrote in her poem Spelling,
“a word after a word after a word is power.”
According to Strayed, the power of those words she read at age seven, “wasn’t the sort of power we associate with politics or world affairs . . . It wasn’t the kind of power we talk about when we talk about destruction or physical force. It wasn’t about defeat or domination or control. It was about a deeper, older, truer sort of power, one that calls upon the original meaning of the word, which is derived from the Latin posse. It means, quite simply, to be able. It’s a definition of power that’s about doing and creating, about writing word after word after word on the page.”
Earlier this year, the National Trust Council visited Oxford, Mississippi, where many of our members demonstrated the power of words by making a pilgrimage to Square Books—one of the country’s best-known independent bookstores. I love the quote from Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby included on the store’s bookmarks, because it speaks to the special power of the written word:
“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its seed or potential, like a music score. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the seed germinates, the symphony resounds. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.”
We learn a great deal by what others tell us about a book, but you have to read it to understand the power, get it in your head, and have it beat in your chest. With our children on the west coast in August, we recently gathered on California’s Monterey Peninsula for a week’s vacation. Given that we were less than a mile from historic Cannery Row—and having heard good things about this book from others—I dove into John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel that helped make this street of old sardine factories and marine laboratories famous. Cannery Row was a delightful read, especially since I walked daily among the buildings and places that inspired the characters of Doc, Mack and the boys, Dora Flood, and Lee Chong. The connection between story and place took that book into my head and helped it beat in my chest. The book focuses on life as it is and celebrates community, while also acknowledging the loneliness of the individual. Steinbeck’s descriptive language and imagery—“What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals?”—are as sharp and inspired as one would expect from a winner of both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes. Key to much of this book, as well as his classic The Grapes of Wrath, is this strong sense of place.
Places that we save and celebrate are full of stories, both real and inspired, that tell much about us as a country and as individuals.
If you’re reading anything that has gotten into your head, is beating in your chest, or is powerful to you, please share it with someone. James Baldwin said in a 1963 interview with Life magazine, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
Sharing is fundamental to connecting with others. Connecting with others is fundamental to a balanced and productive life. Share the power of words.
Have a good week.
More to come…