Why the quality of literature matters

The pen isn't any match for the sword in the short run. But in the long run -- sometimes the very long run -- words, not raw power, bend the curve of history.

Ann Hermes/Staff
Grand Central Terminal, New York.

I have a fine souvenir from Iraq in the early 1980s. It is a passport stamp that registers my Olivetti manual typewriter, a lightweight machine built for travel but with a clunky keyboard that made each word painful. I would gladly have surrendered it to an Iraqi, but that would have landed me in jail.

In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, all typewriters had to be registered. Among the many things the Iraqi tyrant fancied himself – warrior, sage, jolly family man – he cultivated a legend about having delivered a knockout blow to the previous regime with the scorching words he pounded out on his keyboard. His fabled typewriter sat in a glass case in the Museum to the Revolution in Baghdad, and he did not want others to wield such a weapon.

Sure, the mustachioed strongman may have written his share of threatening memos, but it was his ruthless elimination of rivals that put him in the presidential palace. Still, who doesn’t want his deathless prose to change the course of history? Who doesn’t thrill to the thought that the pen is mightier than the sword?

The right combination of words can trigger deep feelings of empathy, help us rise above the daily grind, and convince others of the righteousness of a cause. But this happens slowly. Reason requires the careful assembly of arguments communicated clearly and interestingly. Also needed for an idea to spread: time, amendment, testing, mulling, contradicting, challenging, rephrasing, and the layering on of new facts and arguments.

A well-crafted sentence rarely slashes a quick “Z” in an opponent and walks away.

Example: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” You can’t beat that for an airtight principle. And yet in the US, abolition of slavery took 87 years; women’s suffrage, 144 years; school desegregation, 178 years; and many people are still waiting.

Words drive progress gradually, which is why the quality of our literature is important. (See Robert Lehrman's look at the state of American literature through the lens of the 75-year-old Iowa Writers’ Workshop. That groundbreaking program has produced an astounding number of authors whose ability to craft sentences and communicate ideas has helped us know ourselves better.)

Take, for example, Marilynne Robinson, whose transcendent work “Gilead” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005. Thousands of readers have been moved by the quiet observations of her main character, the Rev. John Ames. One of my favorites: “Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.”

If, like “Huck Finn,” “Gilead” becomes a novel read and reread over the next 100 years, our species will be collectively agreeing that the values embedded in that book are universal. The best sentences do that.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....” “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth....” These words introduce complex concepts that invite us on a journey into deeper knowledge of ourselves, our world, and higher realms. In the long run, the pen is far mightier than the sword.

By the way, the writer who coined that immortal phrase was none other than Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who was also famous for the most lampooned opening sentence in literature. “It was a dark and stormy night” is a running joke that has inspired an annual contest in bad writing. And yet, we’ve all been through enough dark and stormy nights that we know exactly the feeling Lord Bulwer-Lytton was going for. There’s only a shade of difference between that kind of night and a morning in a garden after a warm rain.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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