Coffee with Melville

Last week, I gave my friend a dictionary as a wedding gift.

I’m reminded of that classic moment in the movie Toy Story when the toys are all spying on Andy’s birthday to see what the presents are and Sarge and his little green troops report that one of the presents is a lunchbox. To which Mr. Potato Head replies, “A lunchbox? Who invited that kid?”

I’m officially that kid.

It started out as a joke. The bride-to-be recently mentioned in passing that a dictionary would be nice to have. Except, she added, it’s hard to give one without implying somehow that the recipient of the gift is somewhat unintelligent. My relationship to the bride goes back to the fourth grade and includes years’ worth of the nonsense and giggles that are the marks of all genuine friendship, so of course, I decided if anyone was going to give a useful-but-slightly-insulting gift on her wedding day, it would be me. Plus, since I’m writer and self-proclaimed wordsmith, it’s only natural.  I stopped off at my favorite used book store and came away with a thick, beautifully gilded Meriam-Webster volume, circa 1970something (and only later remembered that the newlyweds are living in one of those trendy “tiny houses” and probably a slimline Oxford pocket dictionary would have been more prudent.)

But all joking aside, as I was wrapping up my odd gift, I got to thinking about it. By the time I wrote the inscription and the card, I had convinced myself that this dictionary was one of the most romantic things I could have gotten them.

And it all comes down to the power of words.

In a marriage, or really in any relationship involving communication (so like, all relationships), words are mind-blowingly powerful. Words, spoken or written, have the power to build someone up or to tear someone down. The power to bless or to curse. The power to encourage or cripple. To make someone’s day or to tear and scar. The compliments you give, the insults you sling, the promises you make and the very prayers you pray are all contained in, and colored by, the words you use. The Bible says that “a word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” To be honest I’m not sure where the apples and pictures factor in, but gold and silver strike a chord with me: words are valuable. Frankly put, talk is not cheap.

So as I was encasing this dictionary in giftwrap, I wanted to give more than just a book of useful definitions to the newlyweds. I wanted to give them a physical, visible reminder: your words carry weight. (Literally—that dictionary probably weighed five pounds. You can’t get that object lesson from the Meriam-Webster app!)

This got me thinking on another tangent. (You’ll notice I love tangents. My mind is a fog-covered coastal mountain, with several million meandering footpaths of thought that disappear into the sea mist so you never quite know where following one will take you.) This tangent concerned the lasting power of words. It should come as no wonder that when God chose to reveal himself to mankind, he wrote a Book. Books last. Words retain their ability to influence thought and action long after the writer’s pen has gone still and cold. Some of the words that have strengthened and encouraged me the most, or that have shaped my opinions and challenged my beliefs about reality and myself, were written by people who died centuries ago. Writers release their words at a certain point in time, but after that, their words transcend time. Picture this, a writer born in Napoleonic France could never dream that a sentence he penned would touch the heart of an English-speaking 21st-century teenage girl, but it happened. In the world of books, stuff like that happens every day.

Words are straight up time travelers, people!

The problem is that they only time travel one way. Do you ever read the “about the author” section on older books, particularly classics, and just come away feeling really sad? For me, this is especially true of my current favorite writer, an American seafarer named Herman Melville. You probably associate him with white whales and the phrase “Call me Ishmael.” But though we all recognize it now as an absolute classic, Moby Dick was met with rather cool reception at the time of its publishing. A few of his other books gained some short-term popularity, but nothing that could sustain Melville and his family financially. He was pretty much considered a writing failure during the last 30 years of his life, and died relatively unknown. The poor performance of his books, added to an unhappy marriage, the death of two of his sons, and a bro breakup with his good friend and fellow writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, all in all just make Melville’s life story a sad one.

Herman Melville’s words have beautified and enriched my life in so many ways. I can’t count the number of times I’ve yelled “YES!” or whispered “wow…” or muttered “I would straight up marry you Herman” when reading one of his books. His words bless me. I just wish I could return the favor. If I had a single-use time travel ticket, I wouldn’t go witness a great historical event or try to alter the course of history (too messy; have you seen Back to the Future?)  I’d just want to have coffee with Herman Melville—or maybe not coffee, just whatever kind of social meeting was appropriate between a man and woman in the mid-1800s—just to say thanks. To encourage him.  To tell him that his words matter to me. That the manuscript he left unfinished and unpublished to the day of his death is one of my favorite things he ever wrote. That he’ll be widely acclaimed as one of America’s greats one day. I’d want to use my words to build him up like his words have done for me.

The fact is, much as I might wish to, I can’t have coffee with Melville. But I can have coffee with a writer who may be struggling. And maybe she’s a future Melville. Maybe you and I are surrounded by future Melvilles. Future Shakespeares. Future van Goghs and future Beethovens. Future Alexander Graham Bells and future Einsteins. The greats of the future are right now regular people with big dreams, who could probably use some of those fitly spoken words at this point in their journeys. And guess what? You can give those gifts of words. Think of someone, someone you know who could use encouragement of any kind. And then give it to them, right now. Cause words can’t time travel to the past. They have present power; speak them now.

And while you’re at it, go buy yourself a dictionary.

A big, heavy one.

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