By Greg Markley
One often hears the phrase, “the power of words” applied to books, fiction and nonfiction. Often the lessons derived from books (including digital) inspire and educate. Other books are either inherently negative or give some readers wrong and awful ideas.
“Oh, I just want what we all want: a comfortable couch, a nice beverage, a weekend of no distractions and a book that will stop time, lift me out of my quotidian existence and alter my thinking forever,” wrote Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love.”
Below I give examples where good, bad or ugly purposes came from reading. In 1990, I became acutely aware of the power of words. As a journalist at Fort McClellan, Alabama, I wrote a very positive story about the only military policeman who died in the Panama invasion. When the private’s father came to the fort, he said he knew about my article and wanted to read it. I had one and gave it to him, saying, “I hope this captures the essence of your son.”
He was pleased with the story and thanked me. So I truly knew a newspaper could touch someone through its power of words. As far as a good book that inspires, I have met several judges and lawyers who agree on the fiction book that most affected them: “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Many lawyers say the character in Harper Lee’s book that resonates with them is Atticus Finch, a courageous and impeccably honest lawyer. In a related book by Lee, “Go Set a Watchman,” published in 2015, Atticus makes comments favoring segregation that the Atticus in “To Kill…” would never. (Another hero found lacking!)
In the case of Christopher McCandless, as shown in the popular movie “Into the Wild,” he was bright and courageous. But he was not practical in preparing or executing his solo trip into the harsh winter in Alaska. After graduating from Emory University, he enjoyed his independence and idealism for more than a year. Yet he tragically starved to death.
McCandless was energized by books of idealists such as Henry David Thoreau, who had isolated himself at Walden Pond, Massachusetts, for several years. After McCandless died, many travelers tried to access the bus in rough terrain, which resulted in injuries and rescues. The New York Daily News reported that, after deaths and injuries to climbers, Alaska officials moved the bus in 2020. They are said to be looking for a spot that is safer and that is in Fairbanks.
Ironically, I spent three days with old friends from my undergrad college in May, 2018, but was not interested in seeing the “death” bus. Even a journalist has limits! There was one death in that area in 2010 and another in 2019, a year after my trip. The bus was removed by military helicopter and is reportedly now at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks.
Emile Hirsch, portraying McCandless in Into the Wild: “The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
That’s an idealistic approach, and a worthy one. Yet, I recommend highly: bring water and a fully charged cell phone.
An ugly aspect of troubled people reading is that the intent of the writing is twisted for corrupt purposes. For example, Mark David Chapman, now 65, murdered former Beatle John Lennon 40 years ago. At the crime scene, Chapman read J.D. Salinger’s angst novel The Catcher in the Rye until police came. He sought to replicate Holden Caulfield, in the book, who was very emotional and called people “phonies.”
In a parole hearing last August, before being denied parole again, Chapman said “I haven’t heard or read that (Catcher in the Rye) for years — this guy wants to save the world. In my twisted way at that time … I’m thinking maybe there’s something I can do now that’s important, and this is my heart. This was my horrible, evil self.” The problem lies not with the authors, but in the malleability of readers’ minds.
When a person’s life can be improved by a novel itself, or by a protagonist, or a situation, or an idea — it makes for an enlightened reader and a better world. But when someone like Chris McCandless takes the idealism of novels far away from reality, tragedy can occur. And when a gullible soul such as Mark David Chapman can’t separate fiction from real life, bad things can happen. The solution: Be hopeful and careful, both. But continue to read!
Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has master’s degrees in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 8 years. He can be reched at firstname.lastname@example.org