The power and mystery of words


It’s hard for me to begin writing about writing, or reading, or words – because all of these things (and none of them are things) are like breathing to me. They are a huge a part of who I am, and have been for most of my life. From Spider Man comics devoured in a hospital bed when I was recovering from a car accident, to T.S.Eliot, read at University and then forever.

It surprised me when I was about 15 and I read, perhaps somewhere in George Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, that there was once a classification of books into lowbrow, middlebrow and highbrow. Up until then, I’d always thought that books were either boring or fascinating; and there was no middle anything.

Of course, I knew that some books and other writings were harder to understand than others. Like the blue-leather covered Naval Engineering encyclopedias my dad kept. But that was more to do with never having seen the huge engines that the technical drawings explained. I felt certain that if I grew up and went to work on a ship then I would learn what the books were talking about. There was no big division between doing something and reading about it. A book about seashore birds was just part of the experience of seeing birds on the beaches from Broughty Ferry to Arbroath.

My first inkling that there was power and mystery in words seemed to appear overnight but perhaps took a bit longer. Certainly, I had a sense of it when I first read Digging by Seamus Heaney. After a description of his father and grandfather digging peat, the poet ends by saying:

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Later, I sought out writers whose work had that same ability to make me belong in their experience of the world, but who also hinted to me that words are ideas and some could illuminate the world as brightly as any physical light. The trick, and it seemed to my adolescent self like a trick which these writers had, was not to stray too far from the world of things. The world where I went to school, and cycled up to Seven Arches Bridge, and saw the stars, and lay in bed reading about a man lying on a forest floor, rifle in hand, waiting to fight a final battle.

Stories hold much of the power which I feel that words can have; and for a long time I read in a state of awe about the stories written and lived by others. My life, my jumble sale of ideas, my story seemed unimportant. Eventually, I realised: everyone’s story is important.

Harvey Duke

There is a podcast of this post HERE.


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