Our most profound ideas are often very simple.
This one was delivered unto me by a humble, small-town Texas bookseller and scribbler as we sat among his stacks and stacks of books. He loved his old books and he sold a few, but mostly he just collected them. It wasn’t a good business model, but this little bookstore in a little town that no longer had a Dairy Queen or a picture show was a holy place to him. Musty, but holy.
And he said something—breathtaking, really, in a small-town bookshop sorta way—that would ultimately add meaning and perspective to my place in the world.
In the last few hundred years, we’ve collected millions of English-language books—world-changers and guilty pleasures alike. Have you ever thought how many quadrillions of words those books must contain? How many different ideas? How many hearts have they touched? How many great leaps forward for humankind they represent? How many children’s imaginations have been sparked? How many remarkable men and women have been inspired by them? How many glorious and infamous acts they recorded?
Every single book on our thousands of miles of shelves (and countless terabytes of digital files) … every book you’ve ever read … every book I have ever written or will write in my life … every sad letter home from Antietam, Normandy, and Saigon … every little girl’s diary … every birth announcement, wedding story, and obituary … they have one thing in common.
Each is just a different arrangement of the same 26 letters.
It’s easy to look around these days and be cynical about the capacity of Americans to be worthy of our place and our time. When that kind of cynicism creeps in, just remember we share the same 26 letters and they can be arrayed in infinite ways that can create pictures in our heads, make us laugh and cry, and change everything.
We can be boundlessly different but we all share that alphabetical DNA. It might be different numbers of different symbols around the globe, but the notion that we share a touchstone of little inky squiggles on paper is more profound and real than relativity or quantum physics.
And while it’s damned hard to find anything that binds us all together—especially today—we still have those 26 letters. How we arrange them is the only diversity that truly matters.
How will you arrange your 26 letters?
Cover image by Amador Loureiro. Inset image by Brett Jordan.