PANAMA CITY — The first time I attended a Books Alive event, my kids were just whipper-snappers.
We sat on a floor in a standing-room-only classroom to hear Tim Dorsey read a segment about his character, Serge, teaching a Florida history course. We managed seats for the session featuring poets Barbara Hamby and David Kirby, who recited selections of their work and told stories about their muses.
We left that day with a book by each of these writers, autographed of course.
More importantly than that, we left with the gifts of inspiration and a shared experience. The kids were only knee high to grasshoppers then, but we still refer back to that day from time to time. We still follow the work of those writers because that morning their words touched us or tickled our funny bones. We still recall their lessons of encouragement and revelation.
In my own childhood, I didn’t have the joy of such experiences — meeting people who live in a world of words. So it was important to me to make that experience available to my children, one of whom has studied theatre and now writes plays and song lyrics, and the other of whom has dabbled in fiction and is studying public relations and marketing.
We live in a world of words — and depending on your beliefs, that statement can be taken literally.
When we argue, we say we had “words” with each other. When we order something to be done, we “say the word.” When we make a promise, we “give our word.” It’s a man’s bond, you know.
Street slang caught up with the concept when a declaration of agreement and appreciation came to be indicated by responding, “Word up,” or simply, “Word.”
So it’s no surprise that even the Good Book (in John 1:1) acknowledges, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In fact, Genesis says God spoke the universe into being, starting with the words, “Let there be light.”
And still you wonder why folks like me are fascinated by the ways in which words work. It’s about storytelling, to be sure, but it’s also about communicating a mood, joy, fear, discovery, adventure, love. It’s about a transcendent power that our words can only attempt to describe.
The best writers are so fluent with that arcane power that their work can change the way we see the world — and the way we use words. Shakespeare alone coined more than 1,500 of our commonly used words and phrases, according to some estimates.
When I was a kid, about the age my children were when we first visited Books Alive, my father told a story that included a joke: One character said to another that he knew what was in every book in every library in the world. The second character bet he didn’t; just what is in every book in every library in the world, he asked.
“Words,” was the answer.
For me, words remain the answer.