Off the Shelf: Words Matter

Virginia Bryan, Library staff

A couple of weeks ago “Publishers Weekly” announced that a new edition of Mark Twain’s classic “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” would be coming out in February in which all instances of the “N” word would be replaced with “slave.” Last week in Tucson, Ariz., Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was gunned down at point blank range in a rampage that injured 19 people, killing six.  Within hours media outlets were abuzz with opinions about the degree to which words – and specifically the incendiary rhetoric characterizing so much of today’s political discourse – contributed to the tragedy. Days later, President Barack Obama honored the pain of the bereaved and comforted a shocked nation with words carefully chosen to unify and uplift. And today, Jan. 17, as I write this column, we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whose remarkable oratory and inspired choice of words challenged a nation to rise above its history in pursuit of civil rights, peace, and justice.

If ever we needed convincing that words have power – to inspire, to comfort, to inflict suffering, to incite violence – the past few weeks have surely provided us with ample evidence.   And yet the frenetic, super-connected world in which we live seems to devalue words and diminish their power, favoring 9-second sound-bites, 140-character tweets, Facebook posts, strung together acronyms, and text abbreviations over the well-turned phrase and the carefully crafted sentence. In our efforts to keep up, we have become careless, many of us to the point where we no longer even know what we are missing.

Reading deeply and purposefully, gathering information, developing critical thinking skills, making informed decisions, finding your own voice and the means to express it – these are key elements in any college learning experience, and all require a facility with words. That facility does not come without effort.

If you want to make that effort but are, literally, at a loss for words, the library is a gold mine. From print dictionaries and thesauruses to the 400-plus reference works in the CREDO reference database, there are resources of every stripe to help you find the just right word.  There are grammar and usage guides, writing guides, reading guides, style guides, vocabulary builders, and guides to public speaking. There are famous speeches to dissect and analyze, both print and online. And there are books, books by the thousands, fiction and non-fiction, some inspired, some less so, but all offering lessons in the power of words to reach out, engage, uplift, and sometimes even transform.

This semester, why not carve out some quiet time, away from the relentless demands of smart phones, iPods, and social network sites, to discover, through listening, reading, and writing, the unique, exhilarating power of your own words?