Book Review: Words That Hurt, Words That Heal

Words That Hurt, Words That Heal:  How To Choose Words Wisely And Well, by Joseph Telushkin

I wish I would have read this book before I had read his book on ethics.  One of the things that writers often do, especially very prolific writers, is to tackle smaller subjects of great interest before moving on to larger topics.  It was only after decades of writing books like this one that dealt with parts of Jewish ethics that the author felt competent to take on ethics in a larger sphere, and as the author’s views on speech did not appear to change dramatically between this book, written more than twenty years ago, and his more recent work, it was not a difficult matter for him to repurpose a lot of this book as part of a larger work on ethics.  I wish I would have read this first, though, because it would have seemed more striking and new and less a reminder of something I read literally only a couple of days before.  After all, it was this book (and others like it) as well as a career of giving conservative Jewish advice concerning ethics and behavior that led the author to feel up to writing larger works on ethics, and this book deserves an honorable place for talking about a matter of great importance in our lives.

This book is a short one at less than 200 pages and an easy one to read, but it is no less worthwhile for all of that.  The author opens with a chapter that makes up part one on the unrecognized power of words (I, 1).  After that the author talks about how we speak about others (II), with short chapters on the damage of gossip (2), the lure of gossip (3), when it is appropriate to share information about others (4), and privacy and public figures (5).  Then the author moves on to discuss how we speak to others (III) with chapters on controlling rage and anger (6), fighting fair (7), how to criticize and accept rebuke (8), communication between parents and children (9), the cost of public humiliation (10), and whether lying is always wrong (11).  After this the author speaks briefly about words that heal (IV, 12) in a single chapter.  And concluding in a fashion that moves to application the author asks what we are to do now (V) in talking about incorporating the principles of ethical speech into daily life (13), and speaking about a national “speak no evil day” (14), closing the book with an appendix that shows the text of a (likely unsuccessful) resolution in favor of such a day being proclaimed from Congress in 1996 (i).

My feelings about this book and its subject matter are complicated.  There are a lot of matters in which I agree with this book, at least on a theoretical manner.  I believe that the Bible justifies lying to evildoers and in some cases (see, for example, the midwives of Exodus 1 and Rahab) views it as an act of faith in defending the righteous from wicked rulers.  Likewise, I believe that one should be able to accept rebuke and take care to avoid humiliating other people and embarrassing them in public, something I tend to feel rather strongly about personally given the circumstances of my own life [1].  Even so, it was striking to see the author speak so strongly about our manner of speaking.  Yet I do not consider myself to be particularly good when it comes to what the author is talking about.  By the standards of the author I would certainly qualify as a gossipy sort of person, and I am certain that my book reviews often come across as rather critical to readers when they are not always meant to be so negative as a writer.  Whether or not the author’s views are accurate, there is certainly a great deal of importance to the matter of speech and the way it strongly affects others, and we could all stand to be more encouraging and less harsh in our speech to others.  Whether or not we ever have a national “Speak No Evil Day,” we should at least speak less evil and work very hard to speak none at all, even when it is necessary to rebuke and correct as it often is.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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