Words: with and without

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – 
That perches in the soul – 
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all – 
Emily Dickinson

I have a hunch that these lines may not be, as at first they seem, an attempt to define “hope” as something to which one can point as a verifiable and distinct entity. This brings me back instead to the sense that I don’t really know what hope is. Hope in what? For what? Who has it, and why, and how? 

Hope is the “thing” we start off with. Because according to Dickinson, it is what we know even as pre-linguists, in our first and original wordless state. 

Babies go for months without uttering what we can really describe as a word. I find this fascinating. There is a stage during which, as little human beings, we have no need for words, and do not feel the lack of them. 

Children and birds are related, somehow. They are the lovers of song. Small enough not to worry about their place and size in the world. Flexible enough to flit here and there, to move and wobble and balance and not stay put. To sing the tune and follow the notes without needing to know the chords, nor reach a final end point.

And yet, whilst we can’t go back to being children, this ‘thing with feathers’ is the part of us that ‘never stops’. ‘At all.’ It doesn’t sing about anything that can be defined, or pinned down. But it sings. Oh hell, it sings. 


How do I reconcile this then, with The Word? Why bother with language? Why ‘progress’ to books?

I guess purely because it allows us to speak to one another. Whether we’re physically present to one another or not. The Word spoken and written. The Word inscribed on stone and smashed to pieces. The Word that had to be repeated, repeated, repeated, in different voices, in order to stay alive. The Word that was buried, over and over, and encased in wood and board, until someone should find it and bring it once more into the light of day.

Otherwise, books become a burden. The heaviness of them, their weight. The way they sit there, unread. 

And the heaviness, the difficulty, starts early. What on earth is one meant to do with a book?! How bring the book to the child, or indeed the child to the book? How attempt this when books cannot yet mean what they say, when there is no knowing yet that books carry meaning? 

To the parent asking such questions, for whom the advice about reading every day to your baby doesn’t yet feel realistic or practical enough, I would say: don’t panic. I know the advice is ‘it’s never too early’, but really – she will find it in her own time. 

It starts with turning the page. It was when, one day, having been left to her own devices for a moment, we returned to her turning page after page of a board book that we knew something had clicked. You can do something with books; they aren’t just static objects. And you can see something different if you turn the page, something perhaps unexpected or new.

But there is no reason, yet, why the pages should go from left to right. So you may find yourself going backwards for some time. And words and writing don’t yet exist, so there may not be time for any reading, try as you may. 

For now, the books that work have at most one short sentence per page; bold, colourful pictures without too much detail; new characters to be met on each new page; and something to touch or hold onto – but not necessarily flaps as they’re in danger of being yanked out or torn!

And so it begins. The world opens up, and wherever the book has come from, it finds now another reader. 

Image by fokustier from Pixabay


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