A world of words

8 Apr

'Words, words, words' … a famous line in Shakespeare's Hamlet. When Polonius asks what the young prince is reading, he responds 'Words, words, words'—an answer which is yet no answer at all, intended to rebuff the old man who has himself been going on and on with high-sounding words, mostly 'hot air'.

What we read is always much more than words. Recently I have read two wonderful books about the power of words to create a world. Indeed, this is both the joy and the frightening potential of all writing: It is not just a question of whether something we write is true. It is a question of what truth or what reality will come from what we write.

Our words can create a world, a situation, a possibility. It was by the power of speech that God created, according to Genesis 1. 'Let there be light …' What reality do our words call into being? What response do they invite?

Markus Zusak has written a truly amazing and enthralling novel, The Book Thief (Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 2005). It is the story of a small German girl who steals books, during the second world war. The story begins with her separation from her parents, and then the death of her younger brother, so she is handed by the authorities to another family, who are themselves very poor. The woman of the home is brutish, often cruel, while the father is bohemian, and in fact has a mysterious past from the first world war.

One striking feature of the novel is that it is narrated by Death, who speaks of coming to snatch souls from the many appalling situations described in the book. The title of the novel comes from the propensity of the child to steal books, beginning with a gravedigger's manual, dropped by its owner when her brother has just been buried.

But Liesel cannot read. Her world is changed by the Jewish fugitive Max, who hides in the basement of her home, and who teaches Liesel to read. She steals a number of other books, and finds a way also to enter secretly the library of a rich home, filled with many books. Most powerfully, though, she reads a book Max writes for her: this book is written on the painted-over pages of another book (Hitler's Mein Kampf). Here, Max and Liesel share the insight that as Hitler had created a world of expectations, accusations and motivations, the results of which were all around them at that time, so too they could create another world and live towards another reality. Max was not sure that he would ever see that reality, but his goal and gift for Liesel was that she would. (In reality, the person on whom this story is based did survive the war and came to live in Sydney!)

At a critical point in her story, deeply distressed by the death and alienation around, including not knowing if her friend Max is alive or dead, Liesel is driven to destroy a precious book. 

Here, from page 553, is something of her story and the author's insight into the power of words:

'She had seen her brother die with one eye open, one still in a dream. She had said goodbye to her mother and imagined her lonely wait for a train back home to oblivion. A woman of wire had laid herself down, her screaming travelling down the street till it fell sideways like a rolling coin starved of momentum. A young man was hung by a rope made of Stalingrad snow. She had watched a bomber pilot die in a metal case. She had seen a Jewish man who had twice given her the most beautiful pages of her life marched to a concentration camp.

Those images were the world, and it stewed in her as she sat with the lovely books and their manicured titles. It brewed in her as she eyed the pages full to the brim of their bellies with paragraphs and words.

You bastards, she thought. You lovely bastards."

Then, struggling in anguish, she begins to tear a book to shreds, first a page and then a chapter …

'Soon there would be 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 Führer 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?'

But clearly the author believes that the words do have the power to do some good: this young person found an entire new world, through words. As Hitler himself exercised power over people through his words, now too she senses the power of words to bring her to a new reality. It is a painful reality, but it is also the way to life. It is a world into which she hopes to live, despite all its pain and risk.

This is a wonderful story, so well told. It's a great book, reaching beyond its own already powerful story, evoking the power of books and stories to create a world into which we may live. 

Another wonderful book Ive read lately is Geraldine Brooks' latest, People of the Book.(Harper, 2008). It's the story of Hanna Heath, an Australian woman who works as a conservationist of ancient manuscripts. She is invited to help restore a Haggadah, a Jewish prayer book, which has been recovered from the ruins of Sarajevo, after the devastation of the war in that city. The novel traces the history of this manuscript and the people who might have created it: Islamic, Jewish and Christian, over the course of 6 centuries. There is also much drama in the apparent theft of the work, just when it seemed to have found a place of restoration and secure appreciation.

The circumstances of the artists who 'illuminated' the work, the details of how such materials were developed, the  physical and social circumstances of the persons and their families, all flow into a powerful narrative, held together by the conviction that books are precious, evocative, beautiful things, calling forth life and love and prayer from the people of these three faith traditions. 

I will not detail this story: it is so well written, and a great read. Rather, I will quote just one paragraph from a conversation between two of the contemporary conservators. One remarks on the fact that the book itself serves as a symbol: it bears witness to the worst of human passions, often in the hands of 'religion', and yet also the power of religious faith in the face of such evil:

"Well, from what you've told me, the book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. Think about it. You've got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia,and everything's humming along, creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize 'the other'—it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists … same old, same old. It seems to me the book, at this point, bears witness to all that." (page 242)

Here again is the idea of the book as meaning much more than the words: the words and the book create something, they sustain something. There is a living, human story, a tradition here. Within all three religious traditions there is the idea of a living tradition, a 'handing on', which is more than content. It is a living tradition into which and through which we may live. This book 'bears witness' to a story of human faith and hope, and human evil and cruelty, and the survival of the former in the face of the latter.

People of the Book is itself a call to believe in that tradition: in the power of books, and words, and to go on creating and conserving such books, in a world of faith and hope, in the face of evil and cruelty. Amen to that!

These are wonderful insights to motivate those of us who seek to teach 'scripture': not as content only, but as a living tradition, the word of God.

2 thoughts on “A world of words

  1. Frank, via Neil Brighton’s blog I found yours and have been taken aback by the traumas you’ve faced in the past months, of which I was unaware.
    Eph 2:8 came to mind as I read your recent posts – “For it is by grace you have been saved…” OK, slightly out of context, but may your experience of life given back to you result in fruitful days to come. Hope to see you before too long.

  2. I love the story of the new world created on the painted over pages of Mein Kampf.
    Most of our other word-conveying media lack the longevity and gravitas of books. I’m about to dispose of a heap of cassettes – full of sermons, they seem so dated, so ephemeral, a moment captured on tape but once out of context, the words have lost their power.
    Many preachers flap their jaws and pepper the air with words, words, words. It takes more than that to create a world, somehow.

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