The Nearest Thing To Immortality

A young Ernest Hemingway in his military uniform.

The legendary fountain of youth has yet to be discovered, but there is something available to every man and woman on this Earth that is quite near to it.  It is not a facial cream and it cannot be purchased at a mall kiosk.  It can be touched in a superficial way, but to truly obtain it, it must be wrangled and pondered and felt.  In all the known Kingdom of God and nature, it is unique to humans.  It has been both loved and cherished, and simultaneously attacked and defiled throughout all history.  It has been entombed in ornate places, behind heavy glass walls under clean soft light, where it can only be gazed upon, for fear that a mere touch will bring it to pieces.  It has been heaped in piles and burned like rubbish.  Many men have tried to grasp it, and all have inevitably failed.  Men have lived to create it, and died to protect it.  It is the written word.  It is books.  It is an idea.  It is fairy tales and treatises.  It is a story in a newspaper and presidential campaign button (I LIKE IKE).

It is the Holy Bible and the Iliad, the Count of Monte Cristo and the Hunger Games.  It is of mice and men and it kills mockingbirds and albatrosses alike.  Nothing in man’s existence on Earth has been so influential to men.  The written word has inspired religions and codified the laws of nature.  It has given hundreds of generations the tempered warrior Ulysses, and the delirious sea captain Ahab.  It has given us the troubled Mr. Jay Gatsby and the wondrous Dorothy of Kansas.  It is a messenger across the ages, the first and most successful traveler through time.

A man without his books is a man without a thought.  No softer hyperbole adequately explains the tyrant’s feverish campaign to destroy them, or the poet’s love of writing them.   In the Dialogues of Plato, in Ion, Socrates argues that the great Greek poets, like Homer, must have been divinely inspired.  How else could these writers capture human nature in such a way as to draw tears from robed philosophers and war-hardened fighters alike?

The likes of Homer, and George Orwell, and John Steinbeck, and women like Mary Shelley, and Emily Dickinson, and Harriett Beecher Stowe, have achieved immortality beyond comprehension.  A police officer stops a young man and gives him trouble for walking in the street, and Fahrenheit 451 is born.  A British socialist goes to the Soviet Union, and 1984 is penned in a Scottish country house.  An American military ambulance driver returns home from World War I and drafts A Farewell to Arms.  The tomboy daughter of an Alabama attorney grows up and writes her only novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.  She names herself “Scout” in the story, and gives her childhood friend Truman Capote the name “Dill”.  In 1959 Truman Capote reads a 300-word article tucked away on page 39 of the New York Times and publishes In Cold Blood in 1966.

Life creates experiences, which create thoughts, and those thoughts remain in our young imaginations, distilling and growing richer with the passage of time.  Words are written, and read, and more words are sowed from those words, like a dandelion scattering her pods on the breath of a child’s lips.  Writing is innovation.  It nourishes culture, it breeds thought, and inspires imagination. It is a powerful cycle, and its progenitors are heralded (or else crucified) into the grave and beyond.  A library, or a good bookstore, is not a mausoleum for the white dead.  It is a repository of thoughts as ancient as the Colossus of Rhodes and as modern as the iPhone 5c.  Every last tome should be read and cherished.

Ernest Hemingway may have put a bullet through his head, and Ambrose Bierce may have vanished without another word into the wilds of Mexico.  Edgar Allan Poe may have died on the streets of Baltimore in raving madness, perhaps still dreaming of Ravens.  But who among us remains more alive; us, or them?

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