I have found some of my most enjoyable reads in small, slender books rather than thick doorstoppers (authors and publishers, please take note). I read quickly, mainly by skipping the non-essentials, and nowhere is this made more clear to me than when I am faced with a book where every word counts.
Birds of Heaven is not so much a book as it is a small collection of Ben Okri’s writings; half consists of an essay titled ‘Beyond Words’, and the other half is mostly snippets from a larger work titled ‘The Joys of Storytelling’. Both were first aired in 1993 in Cambridge, one at Trinity College Chapel, and the other at the Cambridge Union. Together, they express the paradox of how words hinder and how they transcend, how they obscure and how they illuminate. It is reminiscent of the balance of brushstroke and space, note and rest, knowing when to speak and when to be silent:
Stories are as ubiquitous as water or air, and as essential. There is not a single person who is not touched by the silent presence of stories.
The transparency of excellent stories: words dissolve words, and only things stand in their place.
In bad stories words cancel themselves out, and nothing is left. The words return to their source; they desert the page; only meaningless marks are left behind.
Those lines are from ‘The Joys of Storytelling’, but they are echoed in the first essay, ‘Beyond Words’:
At best our cry for meaning, for serenity, is answered by a greater silence, the silence that makes us seek higher reconciliation.
To Okri, words do matter, and that is why writers and speakers must attend to how they use them and what they use them for. The silence that follows the words may be pregnant with the meaning and meaningfulness that leads to creation, or it may merely mark the end of ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ (Shakespeare, Macbeth).
One wonders if Okri’s thought has influenced politicians, for he also says:
Great leaders understand the power of the stories they project to their people. They understand that stories can change an age, turn an era around.
Great leaders tell their nations fictions that alter their perceptions…. Even bad leaders know the power of negative stories.
Nations and peoples are largely the stories they feed themselves. If they tell themselves stories that are lies, they will suffer the future consequences of those lies. If they tell themselves stories that face their own truths, they will free their histories for future flowerings.
It seems a tall order. Could we claim that ordinary stories, bedtime stories, clan stories, all feed into some overarching narrative which becomes the story of a nation, a people? We could. Why is it that when a country becomes independent of a foreign power, the government pays close attention to those institutions that are caretakers of history, culture and arts? Does history not record the story of how we once lived; does culture not depict the story of how we live now; do the arts not declare the story (either utopian or dystopian) of how we could live? Words matter. Stories matter, both the fictional and non-fictional. They create us as much as we create them, and so we should be careful.
(Authors and publishers, please take note.)