An open letter to the library

by Andrea Elizabeth

Dear Public Library,

Thanks for my childhood memories of checking out horse books and The Diary of Anne Frank. Frank was a good name for her. I couldn’t believe what she was telling us. She thought she was just telling a trustworthy confidant, Kitty. I wonder what she thinks about  Kitty telling, or if she would have changed what she wrote if she’d known. Or if our fear of public scrutiny is unfounded in the first place. Heaven may have a different perspective. Her dad wanted Kitty to share. He lost his daughter but he had her best friend who only wanted to talk about Anne. She wasn’t quite as transparent as a pixilated computer screen. She was opaque enough to hold onto Anne’s ink. Black gold, as the TV ballad goes. How rich Anne was to have ink in a pen mightier than the sword.


Who Said It: Edward Bulwer-Lytton

When: 1839

The Story behind It: In Act II of Bulwer-Lytton’s play Richelieu, Cardinal Richelieu learns of a plot against him contrived by a friend and confidant, the monk Joseph. Since as a priest he could not challenge the monk to physical combat, Richelieu issued a written statement which contains the following:

Beneath the rule of men entirely great,

The pen is mightier than the sword.

Bulwer-Lytton was not the only one, nor was he the first, to have the thought. The Greek poet Euripides, who died about 406 B.C., said, “The tongue is mightier than the blade.” In 1600 Shakespeare had Rosencrantz in Hamlet say that “… many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills.” In 1621 Robert Burton wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy, in which he stated: “From this it is clear how much more cruel the pen may be than the sword.” Also preceding Bulwer-Lytton was Thomas Jefferson, who in 1796 sent a letter to Thomas Paine in which he wrote: “Go on doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword.”


Thanks also for my other tangible memories that I no longer enjoy so much. I’ve gotten more distracted in the second half of my life. Two weeks is just not enough time for me to read a book, and remembering to recheck books and to pay your fines is stressful. I should consider it a donation to a worthy cause, but it feels like punishment that activates my post-traumatic stress, not that I have it. So now I buy books off the internet or read e-books. One can’t discount transparent words as one can’t discount Etch a Sketch pictures or the spoken word. I suppose it’s like transferred fiat money that is never touched, compared to gold coins, on which money was originally based. Transient bartering came before that, though.

I had a long, nice talk with George the other day about the necessity of literacy. We ended up being inconclusive. It’s wrong to dehumanize pre-literate, oral cultures, but it also seems wrong to deny people in a literate society access. Ignorance has been used as a tool to dominate others. But that’s not always the case either. Some people believed in an aristocracy that was responsible for the burden of thinking to leave others the freedom to work, pray and live, thought free, as it were. Some, like Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, glorify peasant living for this reason. I prefer to think of it as a multiplicity of goods.

It seems that the written word becomes necessary to preserve oral culture after competing and threatening ideas, or forgetfulness comes in. The victorious Mongols (according to George’s reading) were illiterate at first, and preserved important things through songs. The early Church also did this. It’s harder to rely on memory, which makes it better. The written word seems an economia. God was the first to speak, but man was the first to write. Unless one thinks that creation is an opaque page.

Anyway, Library, my kids love you and want to come see you today. I may let them out and sit in my car with my Kindle, or my hardcopy of Don Quixote. I don’t like crowds, which even one person can seem.

Best wishes, etc.