The Difficulty of Words

Today I read a very curious statement. There is a billboard for the library that says “Every book is just a combination of 26 letters.”

26 letters. That’s it! Every great tome and every measly scrap of writing (at least in English) has been performed under those parameters. How incredibly simple! There is hope for one such as I! I have the same 26 as Shakespeare, the same as Hemingway (although he used his more sparingly, to be sure). All I need to do is employ those self-same letters of our shared alphabet. What could be easier?

26 letters. And there IS distinction between Shakespeare and Hemingway…and especially from them to me. If we do employ the same letters, what is the difference? Perhaps it is in their order. Surely Shakespeare was a master wordsmith. It is said he invented many of the words in his works, and many of those have made their way to regular usage. I must be a bolder, pioneering writer! But then, Hemingway certainly was no pioneer in diction. He used small words, in small ways, to tell (perhaps according to some) big things.

What are those letters in our alphabet? Surely they mean more and were more useful to the Great Writers than they are to me, for I have no such command of them. Were I able to command the soft vowels and hard consonants and bend them to my will, I would have done it all long since! Yet here I sit, scratching head and beard in search of the perfect word – yearning for a glance at a thesaurus, whose depths will perhaps reveal to me the truths I seek. The same letters, but not the same words.

It is true – we all use the letters our language has prescribed for our use. But it is no mere chance and blind rearranging that give us the marvelous stories from the Greats. Or you, or me. Indeed, such works of prose come from the ability to shape and craft those letters into meaning.

For what are words but symbols? And do we not use symbols to allude to our real Meaning frequently? The sun as a gold disk. The cross for our belief. (And in that vein) We put our trust not in the arrangements of letters on the page, but on the certainty that those letters make words that speak The Truth, and do it well and poignantly, to the reader’s soul.