The pen is mightier than the sword.
You try telling that to a mugger on a deserted street at 1.30 in the morning. Righteous indignation and a puffed up sense of your own importance aren’t very useful against a kitchen knife or baseball bat. Because, after all, ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’
So how effective are words, really?
I’ve just finished Jonathan Coe’s latest novel, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. There’s a line of dialogue near the beginning that really stands out to me. The title character’s wife is giving him a reason why she’s leaving him: ‘You’re the kind of person who will never have his life changed by a book.’
Unlike Maxwell Sim, I think I am the kind of person who can have his life changed by a book. Off the top of my head, I can think of three that have had a deep, fundamental effect on the way I look at life – books that I go back to time and time again.
Certain books – and they don’t have to be philosophical studies or great works of art – just happen to strike exactly with your mental state at exactly the right time. They make you feel as though they’ve been written especially for you. It’s not just the ideas they contain, it’s how those ideas are conveyed; the words the writer chooses to use. Put together in the right way, words change how people think.
Look at any kind of oppressive regime, for example, the sort of regimes that go on to kill thousands or millions of people. They don’t just ban the books they disapprove of; right at the start, at about the same time as they’re killing off their political opponents, they make sure they get rid of the writers too. They know that writers are dangerous, writers are powerful, writers can change the world. The only weapons they need are words and words are much cheaper and easier to get hold of than a nuclear warhead or Kalashnikov – even a kitchen knife or baseball bat.
It’s true that a witty put-down or pithy comment about a mugger’s hoodie won’t be much use when he offers to plunge a blade into your neck, but that’s a short-term, rather immediate problem. The long-term issues; the reason why that mugger’s there, the series events that led him to that deserted street at 1.30am – these are all things that can be influenced by choosing the right words. Political, social, moral or consumerist – these are the areas where the writer is in control, where the pen is mightier than the sword.