A VELOCITY OF BEING, Letters to a Young Reader

I first became acquainted with the mind and writing of Maria Popova, one of the two editors of this inspiring book (the other is Claudia Zoe Bedrick, the publisher of Enchanted Lion Books) through her blog, Brainpickings, which a British writer and friend of mine described once as “the best blog online.” And I agree with him.

A Velocity of Being, Letters to a Young Reader, is the culmination of eight years of work by Popova and Bedrick, and is a gorgeous, eloquent celebration of the wonder of books and the power of reading.

In Popova’s words, in the book’s Introduction:

 “Animated by a shared ardor for that “dignity and authority” of the written word, Claudia and I decided to do something about it—which is, of course, always the only acceptable form of complaint—not by fear-mongering or by waving the moralizing should-wand, but by demonstrating plainly yet passionately as possible that a life of reading is a richer, nobler, larger, more shimmering life. And what better way of doing that than by inviting people cherished for having such lives—celebrated artists, writers, scientists and cultural heroes of various stripes—to share their stories and sentiments about how reading shaped them? After all, we read what we are as much as we are what we read.”

 Published by a children’s press and destined for generations of children to come (and their parents), A Velocity of Being is a triumph of passion and collaboration. The format is simple but the execution, simply brilliant. Two hundred and fifty-six contributors accepted the invitation to express to younger readers and those still unborn, what books have meant to them. The effect of their often very personal and idiosyncratic letters is heightened by the fact that each is accompanied by the work of a talented artist-illustrator inspired by their words.

Illustration by Sophie Blackall that accompanies Neil Gaiman’s letter

The list of contributors includes such luminaries as Jane Goodall, Elizabeth Gilbert, Amanda Palmer, Shonda Rhimes, Alan Lightman, Lena Dunham, Richard Branson, Steven Pinker, Mariska Hargitay, Regina Spektor, Marina Abramovic, Ursula K. Le Guin, Yo-Yo Ma, Ann Patchett, Adam Gopnik, Anne Lamott, and hundreds more.

I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy, and when it arrived, I felt just like a child at Christmas. Since then, I’ve spent many evenings (usually at bedtime), reading one, two, six, sixteen letters at a time, while being taken to the place of innocence and dreams created by the juxtaposed words and illustrations.

Illustration by Lara Hawthorne that accompanies Jacqueline Woodson’s letter

Perusing the book again in preparation for this blog post, I was reminded how often Harriet the Spy comes up as a fondly remembered book (I noticed it because it was one of my favourites too when I was a little girl ).
I was moved by Jacqueline Woodson’s lyrical evocation of reading in bed with her young son, and delighted by Alexander Horowitz, whose brief letter begins:

Yesterday I swallowed a book. Opened it, read it voraciously, then gulped it down in a single sitting.”

A little further on, Neil Gaiman, concludes his short missive like this:

Somewhere, there is a book written just for you. It will fit your mind like a glove fits your hand. And it’s waiting.

Go and look for it.”

And it gave me shivers, because I’ve felt that resonance several times. I’ve found such books. Have you? Can you share them with us?

Illustration by Julie Paschkis which accompanies Sarah Lewis’ letter.

Relating her memories of the bookmobile that passed by her house when she was a child, Diane Ackerman refers to books as “portable minds” that “enchanted and befriended her”. And she concludes with a brilliant list of ways to describe books:

No matter where life takes you, you’re never alone with a book, which becomes a tutor, a wit, a mind-sharpener, a soulmate, a performer, a sage, a verbal bouquet for a loved one. Books are borrowed minds, and because they capture the soul of a people, they explore and celebrate all it means to be human.

Long live their indelible magic.”

Illustration by Beatrice Alemagna which accompanies Adam Gopnik’s letter

Oh. I’ve certainly given many verbal bouquets to loved ones over the years.

The brilliant Martha Nussbaum chose to begin her letter like this:

I work a lot in India, where a majority of poor people are illiterate. Here’s what one woman in her thirties, a manual laborer, said about the experience of learning to read for the first time: “Whenever I am alone, I sit with the books. If someone behaves badly with me I go home and sit with the books. And my mind becomes better.”

Illustration by Ofra Amit which accompanies Mara Fay Lethem’s letter

And so I was moved to discover, just a few pages later, that in childhood, Rebecca Solnit, a continent away, experienced books as a similar refuge:

The books of my childhood were bricks, not for throwing but for building. I piled the books around me for protection and withdrew inside their battlements, building a tower in which I escaped my unhappy circumstances. There I lived for many years, in love with books, taking refuge in books, learning form books a strange data-rich-out-of-date version of what it means to be human. Book gave me refuge. Or I built refuge out of them, out of these books that were both bricks and magic spells, protective spells I spun around myself. They can be doorways and ships and fortresses for anyone who loves them.”

To some letter writers, like Dani Shapiro, books create a path of self-revelation:

Dear Future Friend,

 I will probably never know you. We may not ever walk this earth at the same moment. But listen carefully. Books saved my life. In the stillness of reading, the silence save for the sandpapery sound of my fingers turning the page, I was born. In the quiet of a summer afternoon spent in a hammock, of a winter night spent sneaking under the covers with a flashlight, dawned the awareness, slow but unmistakable, that I was not alone. That I was not insane. That my heart was not so very different from everyone else’s. Books made me feel less ashamed. Less weird. Less different. They connected me deeply to my own humanity.”

 […] Keep them close, my young friend. Keep them with reach, always. They contain nothing less than the entire world. Opulent. Staggering. Rich beyond your imagining. Waiting for you to crack open.”

Illustration by Oliver Jeffers which accompanies Holland Taylor’s letter

In A Velocity of Being, we also encounter Helen Fagin, who was forced into the Warsaw ghetto at the age of 21, and who ran a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at essential education, but also, eventually found herself “telling” her students books, stories…specifically Gone with the Wind. She concludes her letter:

There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

 Debbie Millman offers young readers the comforting notion that you can depend on books:

“Books—like dogs—are among a handful of things on this planet that just want to be loved. And they will love you back, generously, selflessly, requiring very little in return—until they are complete, their light and their wisdom and their hearts sputtering to an inevitable, lonely end.

Annalea Newitz’s vision of books is wonderfully subversive:

“A book reaches you by using mind control, but only with your consent.”

 A Velocity of Being, Letters to a Young Reader, is a work of pure devotion. All proceeds from the book are being donated by the editors to the New York library system: […] because libraries are the last bastions of democracy and oxygen for the life of the mind, which, my great-grandfather knew, is our single most ferocious frontier of resistance to inequality and injustice.”- Maria Popova


I can’t think of any better argument or reason why A Velocity of Being should be on the shelves of the Pointe-Claire Library. Go pick up up…now!


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