Brand building through storytelling

The power of reading: Val Ross in her own words

Monday’s post about Val Ross, my friend and colleague who died last weekend at age 57, has touched off a continuing flurry of messages—all of them heartfelt, most of them for my eyes only. A number of you didn’t know Val, but you do know how it feels to lose a friend. And I’m betting you also understand the power of reading, or you wouldn’t be here on my site.

Val BookSo I thought you’d appreciate a passage from Val’s captivating book You Can’t Read This (Tundra Books),a history of lost and forbidden books through the ages. Val wrote the book for young adults, but I found it the perfect companion for an otherwise cheerless flight in economy class. The introduction starts like this:

Wherever people can read, there are stories about the magic, mystery and power of what they read. Because reading unlocks knowledge and power, people hoard it and fight for it just as they fight for treasures and gold.

The ancient Romans told a tale about one of their kings, Tarquin, who wanted to know what fate had in store for his kingdom so that he could be a better, stronger ruler. He went to see the Sibyl of Cumae, a wise woman who lived in a cave, to ask her to read the future. As the king approached the dark cavern, the old woman looked up from where she huddled by a fire and told him that the future was written in her own nine books of prophecy. She said she would sell these books to him—for a very high price.

King Tarquin laughed angrily at the outrageous amount. “Ridiculous,” he said. “I’d never pay that.”

“Very well, said the Sibyl. She threw three of her nine books into the fire.

“But what part of the future was that?” said the alarmed king.

“Whatever it was, it is now unknowable,” the Sibyl replied. “Do you want the other six books?”

“That’s why I came to see you,” said Tarquin. “What is the price for six?”

The Sibyl said, “The same price.” Again the king shook his head, so she picked up three more books and tossed them into the flames as well. “These visions too are now lost,” she told him.

The king was horrified by the destruction. Was she mad? Would she burn all these precious books? He ordered his servant to bring his purse and he emptied it on the cave floor, paying the sum that, at the beginning, would have bought him all nine volumes. With a shrug the Sibyl gave him her last three books. Carefully the king carried them back to Rome, where he ordered them housed in a splendid building, to be consulted by the Senate on Rome’s most momentous occasions.


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