The young man was gaunt and exhausted—not surprising since he had not long since escaped from one of North Korea’s infamous concentration camps. In this virtual hell, whole families could be imprisoned for no reason, and every infraction usually resulted in death. A failed escape attempt meant certain execution, but this young man ran anyway inspired by—of all things—a book. Reading and re-reading a tattered copy of The Count Of Monte Cristo that someone had managed to smuggle into the camp had, he said, made him strong. It had given him the realization that he, too, could be free.
There is an ineffable power in books, a force that is hard to explain or define but in which every writer believes. Call it escapism, label it magic, suggest the power of imagination—it is all these things and more. Books can tweak destiny.
Think of Robert Louis Stevenson lying on his sick bed and dreaming, as he reads, of adventures that he will someday write. Think of Boris Pasternak’s books being smuggled back into Russia so that eager minds could absorb his thoughts and ideas, and of Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience which so greatly influenced both Mahatma Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Much less grand but closer to home, I remember my own young self curled up in my favorite chair. With an apple in one hand and a book in the other, I feasted on words and ideas and possibilities as the summer days ticked by. Surely, those books have colored the way I write and think through all these long years.
We all remember special books, don’t we? My dear friend Tina certainly did. When she was a child, Tina once told me, she read Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days and fell in love with the possibilities of travel. As a little girl, she said, she would pray that she might visit all the countries of the world. She followed that dream, journeying to places I could only dream of and recounting adventures that alternately filled me with wonder and terror. Widowed in her 60s, she spent two years in the Peace Corps and then recommenced her travels. I still treasure the post card Tina sent me from Tierra del Fuego—and the joy with which she opened her heart to the world.
Perhaps it is truly a form of magic that those of us who write and those of us who read books share a bond not only of imagination but of possibility. For each book that comes into our hands has the power to entertain or enlighten and inspire, or, sometimes, to change the course of our lives.
And of this a tired but triumphant young man from North Korea is living proof.
Lines written long past
Come alive and speak to us
We need but listen.