by Yolande Clark-Jackson
I recently gave my thirteen-year-old son a copy of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. It was on his summer reading list. The book is narrated by Death and there are three sentences in the narration that my son was compelled to write down and memorize. Death says, “In war young men think they are running toward other young men. They are not. They are running at me. “
Now there are many great lines and scenes in that book, but these are the lines my son wanted to keep. It impresses me that good writing has the ability to get people to copy whole lines and paragraphs down and memorize them. I love that language can do this. Now, I don’t have the ability to memorize most of my favorite lines from the best books I’ve read, but I do write them down. They are in pages of letters, old journals, or blog posts. I, too, am unable to leave some lines behind. I want to reflect on them and share them with others long after I’ve left the pages of the book.
What are the characteristics of these lines that linger, and how does one write them? I think one answer is: If they speak to a universal truth. If they ring true universally to the human experience but reveal truth in a way that is fresh or unexpected. Another answer is: If the words defy what is commonly accepted. These are things that make the reader take pause to reflect or re-read.
After reading, “On Morality” by Joan Didion, I contemplated the idea of morality in a way I had not done before. She writes “good” or “moral” was a “monstrous perversion to which any human idea can come.” It aligns with the popular saying that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”’ We can shape “moral” into anything we choose, including a stone to murder a woman who is accused of adultery.
In Comfort, Ann Hood writes, “Time doesn’t heal”, which is the opposite of the popular quote, “Time heals all wounds.” And knowing that there are some traumas that people do not recover from, the reader understands why Hood challenges it. Her words stayed with me because they were true for me as well.
My son doesn’t know why those three sentences in Zusak’s book stopped him, but I do. He found the truth in them; a truth he didn’t expect to find but knew he wanted to keep.