Looking around me as I write this, I am surrounded by books. In my small office,
there are three bookcases crammed with them and there are more sitting in stacks. Growing up, it was the same: we were surrounded by books and encouraged to read. I’m sure it was the same for many of you.
Perhaps it was knowing how important books were to me growing up — how they rescued me in so many ways — that made me respond so deeply to an excerpt from Black Boy, the first volume in Richard Wright’s autobiography. In the piece I read, Richard describes how his curiosity as a teenager was aroused when he read an article denouncing the social critic H.L. Mencken as a “fool.” Surprised that a white man would be criticized, Richard decided he had to read Mencken to see why his ideas were so dangerous. But the public library was open only to white people and off limits to him. To get one of Mencken’s books, he had to forge a note. When he finally opens it up, here’s what he discovers:
“Yes, this man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club. Could words be weapons? Well, yes, for here they were. Then, maybe, perhaps, I could use them as a weapon?…I concluded the book with the conviction that I had somehow overlooked something terribly important in life. I had once tried to write, had once reveled in feeling, had let my crude imagination roam, but the impulse to dream had been slowly beaten out of my by experience. Now it surged up again and I hungered for books, new ways of looking and seeing.”
What an astonishing story! A young man’s love of words is ignited and grows into an unquenchable passion. He’s a sharecropper’s son but he educates himself and goes on to write books the world still remembers and reads. What power words wield!