When I was in my teens, I studied Shakespeare with a teacher who read Hamlet to us, relished the monologues and as she read each word pronounced it “trippingly on her tongue.” This probably encouraged me first as a singer and later as a writer.
Words and how they’re used may shape, enlighten, or defame. Influence elections. Judge human frailties. Prod, push and urge fanaticism. Cause one nation to fight another. Incite murder. Words are debated, memorized, and changed as they pass from one generation to the next. Whispered, sung, and shouted. Sighed over and repeated when chosen to encourage love or lust. Thought about and constantly rewritten when used in fables, stories, plays, histories and religious texts.
The Torah: The Five Books of Moses that Christians call The Old Testament is studied by Jews and Christians today. The New Testament is read by the faithful in many interpretations throughout the world—the King James Bible, from the year1611, one of the most popular. The Koran, the sacred text of Islam is believed to contain the revelations made by Allah to Mohammed.
Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species explained the evolutionary process. Controversy followed and is still debated because it disagreed with the literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis in the Bible.
Democracy, Capitalism, Socialism and Communism have many roots: The Republic written in 380 BC by Plato, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, and On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution. The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx brought about changes in government in many parts of the world. The words in these documents all reverberate in our day.
Jacob Riis wrote How the Other Half Lives bringing attention to the poor in the United States. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and the Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir changed the lives of women. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl written by Harriet A. Jacobs under a pseudonym and The Narrative of Frederick Douglass focused on the lives of enslaved African Americans and led to the unforgettable words of Martin Luther King. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair—a novelist and social reformer—exposed the horrors of the Chicago meat packing industries and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson alerted the public to the dangers of environmental pollution.
Shakespeare’s plays influenced our view of history and are still selling tickets today. (Personal note: When I saw Henry the Fifth at the Globe Theater in London, I found myself enthusiastically cheering for the English before the realization struck—I was an American and should have been cheering for the French who helped during our revolution.)
Examine the ancient history of enemy warfare and learn about the first documented manuscript, titled The Art of War, written in 400 BC, by Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist and philosopher who advised the use of deception as an instrument of conflict. The book includes a chapter on counter-intelligence. “All war,” Sun Tzu wrote, “is based on deception.” Sound familiar?
In the play Amadeus, the author Peter Shaffer, accuses Antonio Salieri, a court musician—who taught Beethoven Liszt and Schubert—of jealousy leading to the murder of Mozart. Didn’t happen but the power of Shaffer’s words persuaded many in the audience. John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, a play about a priest who is suspected by a nun of molesting a child led to discussion by playgoers that sometimes lasted for days. Did he or didn’t he? The argument goes on.
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By the end of a narrative—document, biography, history, fiction—no matter the genre, a connection between the writer and reader will encourage conversations with others about motivations, the truth of what has been written, and what the story means to them—each takes something different away from the page. We may not write a book that will last through the ages, we may not become a 21st century Jane Austin or Charles Dickens but we can write books that will bring enjoyment, discovery, escape and the hunger for another manuscript.