Tag Archives: words

The Power of Words in “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak

It’s been a while since I published a blog post. I’ve been quite busy with work and travel (went to Spain, which was “fantastico”). Anyway, amid the craziness and busy-ness, I managed to read The Book Thief. My daughter had loaned it to me, saying that she loved the book and felt I would love it too, which I certainly did. I had seen the film, but as usual, the book was WAY better than the movie.

The first thing that struck me about this book was the narrative voice, which is the voice of Death. Omniscient narrators are nothing new, but Death as a character certainly provides a unique vantage point from which to tell a tale, particularly one set in Nazi Germany during WWII. The narrator exudes a strange sense of detachment and sadness, which if you are the Grim Reaper is probably how you would need to be. You would need to detach yourself enough to reap souls, but it would be cruel to do so without some feeling of sadness at the many lives cut short.

While this story is so rich and offers much to explore, I’d like to focus on the power of words as presented in the text.

As a writer, I am keenly aware of the power that words have. They are symbols that evoke images, sway opinions, enlighten, and mislead. When people say that the pen is mightier than the sword, what is actually meant is that words are the most powerful weapons anyone can wield.

Yes, the Fuhrer decided that he would rule the world with words. “I will never fire a gun,” he devised. “I will not have to.” Still, he was not rash. Let’s allow him at least that much. He was not a stupid man at all. His first plan of attack was to plant the words in as many areas of his homeland as possible.

He planted them day and night.

He watched them grow, until eventually, great forests of words had risen throughout Germany. . . It was a nation of farmed thoughts.

(p. 445)

The protagonist, Liesel (the book thief), loves books. But at the height of her despair, she has an epiphany where she fully grasps the power of words as tools to spread evil.

She tore a page from the book and ripped it in half.

Then a chapter.

Soon, there was nothing but scraps of words littered between her legs and all around her. The words. Why did they have to exist? Without them, there wouldn’t be any of this. Without words, the Fuhrer was nothing. There would be no limping prisoners, no need for consolation or wordly tricks to make us feel better.

What good were the words?

She said it audibly now, to the orange-lit room. “What good are the words?”

(p. 521)

Words, like swords, are double-edged. They can cause immeasurable suffering, but can also heal the deepest wounds. This is why when I see people throwing words around on 24-news stations or on social media, I cannot help but feel concerned. If people would only pause and consider before reacting with words, we would avoid a lot of pain and conflict.

We all need to choose our words more carefully. I, for one, will try to be vigilant regarding how I use these powerful tools, and hopefully I can use them to advance society and humanity.

Thanks for taking the time to read my “words.” Cheers!

Advertisements

4 Comments

Filed under Literature

Doctor Strange and the Sorcerers Supreme – Issue #5

doctorstrange_sorcererssupreme_5

This installment focuses on Sir Isaac Newton and his quest to learn the secret Word of God, and by doing so, harness the power to create and destroy through the use of words.

The problem with power is that it is addictive, it corrupts, and many people feel that it is the key to provide them with what they lack. This is certainly the case with Newton, who believes that by acquiring the power contained in the Word of God, he will become free and ultimately godlike.

And when I used those words, I realized, the only true prison I’ve endured was the one of my own making. Fear that I had no choice. That I could not change destiny. But no. I am free. Truly free. Free to leave my mark on the world. Free to be what I was meant to become all along… God.

Reading this, I was forced to remember the prisons I had built for myself over the years: fear, anger, resentment, self-loathing. It took me a long time to free myself from these prisons, because the most difficult bonds to free yourself from are the self-imposed ones. I am grateful that I was shown a more positive path to freeing myself, one that did not lure me into the temptation of power and money. Love, trust, faith, acceptance—these were the keys that freed me from my cell. I think that what Newton fails to realize in this story is that power is yet another prison, just like his fear was. But I suspect he will discover this in a subsequent installment.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by, and have a great day.

5 Comments

Filed under Literature

“Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living” by Krista Tippett

becomingwise

I picked this book up while at the Faith in Literature conference, where I was fortunate enough to attend two conversations with Krista Tippett, as well as a luncheon with her. She was so inspiring that I could not pass on the opportunity to acquire an autographed copy of her book. It was promptly placed at the top of the “to-be-read” pile.

The book is basically a collection of her thoughts along with snippets of conversations with spiritual thought leaders, activists, writers, and poets from her radio show, “On Being.” She divides the book into five main sections: Words, Flesh, Love, Faith, and Hope. There is so much wisdom in this book, that it is impossible for me to do it justice, so I will just share a few passages and my thoughts on them. The first one concerns the power of stories.

They touch something that is human in us and is probably unchanging. Perhaps this is why the important knowledge is passed through stories. It’s what holds culture together. Culture has a story, and every person in it participates in that story. The world is made up of stories; it’s not made up of facts.

(p. 26)

I had a professor in college who specialized in Irish literature, and I remember him telling me that stories mattered. That has stayed with me throughout my life. There is power in stories and poems. They convey something about the human experience that cannot be expressed in a spreadsheet or a graph. It saddens me when I talk to people who say they never read fiction or poetry, because they don’t have the time or they only want to read “factual” books. These individuals miss out on something unique to the human experience, a communal sharing that our society desperately needs.

Growing up, I connected to the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s and did my best to carry the torch of social change. But after a while, I became disillusioned, and Krista captures what it is that has changed between the 60s and today.

A comparison was made with the 1960s, another moment of social turmoil, including many assassinations. A journalist said that he thought the difference between the 1960s and now was that even though there was incredible tumult and violence, it was at the very same time a period of intense hope. People could see that they were moving toward goals, and that’s missing now.

(p. 156)

It is hard to remain hopeful when we are bombarded with negative stories via social media and network news stations. I really make an effort to stay positive, but sometimes I can’t help feeding in to the hype. One of my short-term goals is to try to be more positive and hopeful.

I have always been fascinated by both science and mysticism, which is why the following quote resonates with me.

Both the scientist and the mystic live boldly with the discoveries they have made, all the while anticipating better discoveries to come.

(p. 186)

What I love about science and mysticism is that they both seek to illuminate the hidden mysteries of existence. There was a time when the mystical arts and the sciences were aligned. That changed for a while and the two were at odds. But lately, I see the paths converging again, and I think that it will ultimately be the unification of the scientific with the spiritual that will usher in the next stage of human evolution and ultimately save us from ourselves.

With all the negativity, divisiveness, and hostility that I have seen this past year, this book was exactly what I needed to shift my perspective back to the positive. Too often my cynicism kicks in, but Krista reminds me that there is always hope and that we should never stop striving to improve ourselves and the world around us. I want to close with one more quote that really captures the importance of this book, which I hope you will read soon.

Our problems are not more harrowing than the ravaging depressions and wars of a century ago. But our economic, demographic, and ecological challenges are in fact existential. I think we sense this in our bones, though it’s not a story with commonly agreed-upon contours. Our global crises, the magnitude of the stakes for which we are playing, could signal the end of civilization as we’ve known it. Or they might be precisely the impetus human beings perversely need to do the real work at hand: to directly and wisely address the human condition and begin to grow it up.

(p. 14)

4 Comments

Filed under Literature, Non-fiction, Spiritual

“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 24” by Lao Tzu

TaoTehChing

One on tip-toe cannot stand.
One astride cannot walk.
One who displays himself does not shine.
One who justifies himself has no glory.
One who boasts of his own ability has no merit.
One who parades his own success will not endure.
In Tao these things are called “unwanted food and extraneous growths,”
Which are loathed by all things.
Hence, a man of Tao does not set his heart upon them.

This passage deals with ego and the need that some people have to seek validation from others. We all know people like this; those who go on about their glory days, trying to make themselves and their accomplishments seem greater than they actually are. And probably, we are all guilty of this to some extent. I would be disingenuous if I said that I had never put my achievements on display in order to gain acceptance or praise. But I recognize the danger in this. If we seek to define ourselves through the validation of others, then we are limiting our potential, because we are not being true to ourselves. We become more concerned about our appearances to others than about internal happiness and spiritual growth.

Humility is difficult, but it is a spiritual value. Today, I will try to be humble in my actions.

2 Comments

Filed under Spiritual

“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 23” by Lao Tzu

TaoTehChing

Only simple and quiet words will ripen of themselves.
For a whirlwind does not last a whole morning,
Nor does a sudden shower last a whole day.
Who is their author? Heaven-and-Earth!
Even Heaven-and-Earth cannot make such violent things last long;
How much truer is it of the rash endeavours of men?

Hence, he who cultivates the Tao is one with the Tao;
He who practices Virtue is one with Virtue;
And he who courts after Loss is one with Loss.

To be one with the Tao is to be a welcome accession to the Tao;
To be one with Virtue is to be a welcome accession to Virtue;
To be one with Loss is to be a welcome accession to Loss.

Deficiency of faith on your part
Entails faithlessness on the part of others.

I suppose it is no coincidence that I read this passage today. I have been thinking a lot about the power of words lately, especially in light of the vitriol associated with the recent election. It seems that people feel the need to rant and rage louder and louder about their indignation, thinking that this is the way to foster change. It is not. No one responds to harsh words the way you hope they will. Softer, empathetic words have a deeper impact. They are accepted and plant the seeds of change within another person. The violent storm washes the seeds away; it does not nourish the seeds.

The part of this passage that puzzled me at first was the meaning of the word Loss. It seemed that Loss was something desirable, but it took me a little while to figure out why. I think Lao Tzu meant the loss of the ego, of the self-righteous indignation that causes individuals to speak harshly against others. This will definitely draw you away from the path. So before you lash out verbally at someone, take a breath, relax, and try to lose some of the anger and indignation that is at the root of the harsh words. By doing so, you will be a better communicator and a bringer of positive change.

Leave a comment

Filed under Non-fiction, Spiritual

Meaning of Abracadabra in “Midnight’s Children” by Salman Rushdie

MidnightsChildren

Not too long ago, I went to a lecture by Salman Rushdie at the University of North Carolina – Asheville. He was so inspiring that I ended up purchasing a copy of Midnight’s Children (click here to read my thoughts on his lecture). Since I was reading Infinite Jest at the time, it took a little while to get around to it, but I finally did so and finished reading it the other day.

Anyway, the book is amazing and rich in imagery and symbolism. I filled several pages of reference notes in my journal as I worked through the novel. So then the question became: What do I write about? I didn’t want to just write a summary, so I decided to focus on the word “abracadabra,” which is also the name of the last chapter in the book, and share my thoughts on how this word ties in to the overall story.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the etymology of the word, it is Aramaic in origin and roughly translates to something like “I create as I speak.” So the mystical power of this word is that magicians and occultists can use it to conjure or create with the use of a word, similar to the power of the Judeo-Christian god who created all existence from a word (see Genesis).

So here is the passage that I feel is key to understanding what Rushdie is doing on a grand scale with the book.

… yes, and Aadam heard it too, with his flapping ears he heard the rhythm of the magic, I saw his eyes light up as I accepted, and then we were in a third-class railway carriage heading south south south, and in the quinquesyllabic monotony of the wheels I heard the secret word: abracadabra abracadabra abracadabra sang on the wheels as they bore us back-to-Bom.

Yes, I had left the colony of the magicians behind me for ever, I was heading abracadabra abracadabra into the heart of nostalgia which would keep me alive long enough to write these pages…

(p. 519)

At this moment, the protagonist of the story, Saleem Sinai, realizes the mystical power of the written word, that words are magical symbols that can create connections between the past and the present and the future, and that through the use of words, he is creating a mythology that is eternal. These connections, or correspondences, are the building blocks of the myth, because mythology uses symbols to explain things on a grand or cosmic scale. And what I find most fascinating is that what we have here can be described as a meta-abracadabra, since we have Rushdie using the magical power of words to create a story that is a mythology of modern India, but within the story is another story about Saleem using words to write his own myth establishing the correspondences between his life and independent India.

Since I wove in the concept of correspondences, I want to add another quote from the book that elaborates on correspondences.

As a people, we are obsessed with correspondences. Similarities between this and that, between apparently unconnected things, make us clap our hands delightedly when we find them out. It is a sort of national longing for form—or perhaps simply an expression of our deep belief that forms lie hidden within reality; that meaning reveals itself only in flashes.

(pp. 343 – 344)

I firmly believe in the concept of correspondence. All things are connected, and sometimes those connections are obvious, and sometimes they are hidden, as in symbolism. But connections exist all around us, and the power of the written word can help us realize those hidden connections. Abracadabra!

Although this book is rich with symbolism, it is very readable, a terrific story, and has some of the most beautiful use of synesthesia I have ever encountered. I highly recommend reading it. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading engaging stuff.

4 Comments

Filed under Literature

“On Political Correctness” by Umberto Eco

TurningBackTheClock

This essay is included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism and explores how political correctness has influenced language. It’s an interesting topic and one I find pertinent, since language is always evolving and the words we use to identify groups or individuals affect our collective views on these groups or individuals.

As our culture strives to become more tolerant and accepting, society tries to avoid using labels that have negative connotations associated with them. This is a good thing and a step in the right direction, in my opinion. But Eco points out something that is worth considering. He claims that by changing the labels that we use to identify people, we are essentially creating a loophole that allows society to skirt the real social issues that need addressing.

The point here is that politically correct decisions can represent a way of avoiding unresolved social problems, disguising them with a more polite use of language. If we stop calling people in wheelchairs handicapped or even disabled (they are differently abled) but fail to build them access ramps to public areas, we have clearly—and hypocritically—got rid of the word but not the problem. The same may be said of the replacement of unemployed with involuntarily leisured.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 90 – 91)

Eco also points out another issue with political correctness, that some people see it as an infringement on free speech. This is a can of worms and I am going to stay out of this argument, but I felt it was worth including just as something to think about.

… from the start PC caused a violent reaction in conservative circles, who see it as a case of left-wing bigotry and a curtailment of free speech. Reference is often made to Orwell’s newspeak and (sometimes directly) to the official language of Stalinism. Many of these responses are equally bigoted, and in fact there is a right-wing form of PC, just as intolerant as the left-wing brand. Think of the abuse hurled against those who talk of the Iraqi “resistance.”

(ibid: p. 94)

Eco closes his essay by asserting that we should all strive to avoid using words that make others uncomfortable or cause others to suffer.

And let us stick to the fundamental principle that it is humane and civilized to eliminate from current usage all those words that make our fellow beings suffer.

(ibid: p. 96)

5 Comments

Filed under Literature, Non-fiction