Friday, October 16, 2009

The new watchword for Wal-Mart: strafe

“Wal-Mart Strafes Amazon in Book War” blares the page one headline in today’s Wall Street Journal. “Strafe” would have sent me running for cover, had I known its meaning. Instead it sent me scurrying to the dictionary.

As it turns out, strafe has a very specific—and rather lengthy—meaning. To quote American Heritage: “To attack (ground troops, for example) with a machine gun or cannon from a low-flying aircraft.” Like trench coat, strafe is a vestige of World War I. It’s from the German strafen, to punish, which is what Germany wanted to do to England at the time.

That war is over. Now it seems Wal-Mart and Amazon will engage in their own punishing campaign to see who can go lower on the price of a book. (Mainly it’s authors who will get punished.)

Strafe is what I call a one-syllable wonder: one of those economical words in our language that says in one sound what might otherwise take a sentence to explain. Add it to your arsenal of words that pack a powerful punch. And if someone threatens to strafe you, take cover.

Friday, October 2, 2009

At the Library of Congress, some words for the Capitol

Last week I went to the Library of Congress on business—although I don’t think it’s possible to be in the take-your-breath-away-beauty of the Jefferson Building of the Library and feel like it’s hard work.

I had never been to America’s library before, so I didn’t realize that the Library is literally across the street from the U.S. Capitol building. The two are now connected through an underground tunnel. They also share an icon in their lofty treatments of Minerva. Atop the Capitol building, she fulfills her role as goddess of might in war. Inside the Library, she assumes her equal role as goddess of wisdom.

But what really joins these two buildings are the books—not because of what they are but because of what they represent. This is, after all, the library that Thomas Jefferson established for members of Congress, even though it is open to all (that’s democracy for you).

Government grounded in words

As Librarian of Congress James Billington reminded guests at the reception for this year’s National Book Festival, our country, more than most, is built on a foundation of governance that’s grounded in the written word. How fitting, then, that everywhere you turn in the Jefferson Building, there is writing on the walls. They are the words of great thinkers through the centuries—Bacon, Virgil, Cicero, Milton, Shakespeare and a host of others.

The inscriptions carry an apostolic quality, as well they should. The Library of Congress is America’s secular cathedral. It represents not simply books but learning, and not only learning but knowledge, and not just knowledge but, when we as a nation play our heritage cards right, civil comportment.

“Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.”

The words are Emerson’s, and they are among the hundreds that capture this transcendent power of the possible.

More than the tunnel that connects them, more than the domes that define them, even more than Minerva, the immutable bond between Library and Congress rests with the words. In the most hopeful and uplifting of ways, the writing of American possibility is on the walls at the Library of Congress. Let's hope that members of Congress visit often.