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The Value of Words

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Tuesday, Mar 11, 2008

Recently I finished Australian author Markus Zusak’s fantastic novel, The Book Thief (2006). Coming off of a disappointing read (see my post on Labyrinth), this book reaffirmed my faith in the beauty of prose—and the amazement that comes with reading something entirely new. Besides being an incredible story, this book is creative with words in a way I haven’t seen for too long. Words have an active presence, a forcefulness, almost a will of their own. Liesel, the central character in a narrative told by a surprisingly sensitive Death, is handed over to a foster mother who uses words as weapons:


She seemed to collect the words in her hand, pat them together, and hurl them across the table (35).


Elizabeth Chang writes for The Washington Post:


Death, like Liesel, has a way with words. And he recognizes them not only for the good they can do, but for the evil as well. What would Hitler have been, after all, without words? As this book reminds us, what would any of us be?


Liesel’s claim to fame, her own way of validating her existence in the bizarre microcosm of Nazi Germany, is to steal books, even before she learns how to read at the late-blooming age of 10. Once she starts the thievery, she can’t stop, and it becomes her small act of rebellion in the restrictive confines of 1940s German society.


I thought of Liesel recently when I was asked at my library job to take a pile of denuded (read: coverless), unwanted books to the recycling dumpster behind the high school cafeteria. Tossing in armful after armful of dusty, unread, out of date library books, I thought of Liesel digging a precious overheated tome out of a Nazi literary funeral pyre and hiding it under her jacket, burning herself to save the words (122). She would go to any length to save a book, no matter the effort it cost her, and no matter what the book was. And here I was, tossing them into a dumpster. I took a moment to ponder the literary relativity and the value of words. Death narrates:


Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain (80).


I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Zusak’s award-winning 2005 novel I am the Messenger, which was already checked out of the library when I finished The Book Thief. What was your last read that made you appreciate language in a new way?

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