That was the week that was

November 8, 2008

What can I say about this week? That it was busy? That I read a lot of manuscripts? That I’m in the middle of making a deal? That I didn’t get as much done as I should have got done? That squirrels have eaten so much of our carved Mr Pumpkin on the front step that his grin has got bigger and bigger and more and more insane?
It would all be true. And yet one thing really happened this week: there was an election. Or perhaps I should say AN ELECTION. Because this was an election worthy of capitalization.

The two campaigns have made me think a lot about WORDS. These word-gems we handle every day of our lives, so casually, so carelessly most of the time – so weightily, so crucially at others. I’ve talked before about the gleaming jewels of our language; the diamonds, sapphires, and rubies of inestimable power, capable of arrangement and rearrangement into a myriad of patterns. This pattern can make me laugh; this pattern can break my heart. This pattern can bring down a Wall; this pattern can create a President. Words can corrupt and betray – and they can inspire and change the world. Words – the tools of our trade, the love of our lives as writers. The pen is mightier than the sword; the speech can defeat the gun; the wordsmith holds the keys.

Today I went to Washington DC’s incredible new museum – the Newseum. A glass and steel homage to the power of words, and our history told by journalists, many of whom have lost their lives around the world so that the story WOULD be told. There you can see the original front pages of newspapers from 1485 to the present day, and it is an extraordinary and breathtaking archive: the Spanish Armada, the Great Fire of London, the Declaration of Independence, the outbreak of two world wars, the deaths of JFK and Princess Diana – right up to this week’s election. But also the origins of some of the world’s biggest ideas – the original writings of Thomas Locke (whose work had such an influence on Jefferson) and Thomas Paine; a fifteenth-century translation from Latin of the Magna Carta. The Areopagita. Here is the long, long span of history and the development of the media that reflects that history back to us. Yes, there is wonderful journalistic photography; but accompanying it all are words – and some poignant momentoes of brave people who wouldn’t be silenced: Veronica Guerin’s Montblanc pen; Daniel Pearl’s passport (cancelled); more than one bullet-riddled car.

So I’m still thinking about this election. And remembering how I stood on the spot on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King said, ‘I have a dream.’ And how we now have a President-Elect who has said, ‘Don’t tell me that words don’t matter.’

He is right. Don’t tell me that words don’t matter. Yes, most words need actions to accompany them. But those little gems of language still rule. And they can change a life – and the world.