A Child of Books: An Illustrated Love Letter to the Wondrous World of Words and Stories
By Maria Popova
Half a millennium before Carl Sagan pointed to books as “proof that humans are capable of working magic,” Galileo saw reading as a way of having superhuman powers. For Kafka, books were “the axe for the frozen sea within us,” while James Baldwin found in them a way to change one’s destiny. “A book is a heart that beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her lyrical meditation on the intimacy of reading and writing. But what, exactly, is the lifeblood pumping through that heart? Perhaps Hermann Hesse put it best in his beautiful essay on reading:
At the hour when our imagination and our ability to associate are at their height, we really no longer read what is printed on the paper but swim in a stream of impulses and inspirations that reach us from what we are reading.
That transcendent stream is what London-based typographic fine artist Sam Winston and Belfast-born, Brooklyn-based artist and children’s book maestro Oliver Jeffers plunge us into with A Child of Books (public library) — a serenading invitation into the joyful wonderland of reading, extended by a courageous little girl besotted with books to a little boy timorous to take the dive.
As she takes him by the hand and gently guides him across the “mountains of make-believe,” over the monster-haunted castles, through the fairy-tale forests, his fearful reluctance crystallizes into curiosity, which finally melts into a warm wonderment at this new world of words and stories.
An homage to literary classics carries the story as an undercurrent of affectionate appreciation for the way in which literature carves our interior landscapes. Jeffers is no stranger to appropriating existing art in original storytelling. Here, his unmistakable illustrations animate Winston’s landscapes, crafted from the texts of classic children’s stories, nursery rhymes, and lullabies — typographic topographies composed of multigenerational cultural treasures like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Gulliver’s Travels, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Frankenstein.
What emerges is a jubilant paean to books as participatory engines of self-discovery, self-creation, and self-transformation — a supreme testament to Susan Sontag’s unforgettable Letter to Borges, in which she asserted:
Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence… a way of being fully human.
For a grownup counterpart to the brilliant and heart-brightening A Child of Books, see Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska on why books remain our ultimate frontier of freedom and Neil Gaiman on what reading does for the human spirit, then revisit Jeffers’s unusual alphabet book and his wonderful illustrated parable of what happens when we deny our difficult emotions.
Illustrations courtesy of Oliver Jeffers; photographs by Maria Popova
Published September 6, 2016