A Velocity of Being: Illustrated Letters to Children about Why We Read by 121 of the Most Inspiring Humans in Our World
By Maria Popova
One of the great cruelties and great glories of creative work is the wild discrepancy of timelines between vision and execution. When we dream up a project, we invariably underestimate the amount of time and effort required to make it a reality. Rather than a cognitive bug, perhaps this is the supreme coping mechanism of the creative mind — if we could see clearly the toil ahead at the outset of any creative endeavor, we might be too dispirited to begin, too reluctant to gamble between the heroic and the foolish, too paralyzed to walk the long and tenuous tightrope of hope and fear by which any worthwhile destination is reached.
If eight years ago, someone had told me that A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) would take eight years, I would have laughed, then cried, then promptly let go of the dream. And yet here it is, all these unfathomable years later, a reality — a collection of original letters to the children of today and tomorrow about why we read and what books do for the human spirit, composed by 121 of the most interesting and inspiring humans in our world: Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shonda Rhimes, Alain de Botton, James Gleick, Anne Lamott, Diane Ackerman, Judy Blume, Eve Ensler, David Byrne, Sylvia Earle, Richard Branson, Daniel Handler, Marina Abramović, Regina Spektor, Elizabeth Alexander, Adam Gopnik, Debbie Millman, Dani Shapiro, Tim Ferriss, Ann Patchett, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more immensely accomplished and largehearted artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.
Accompanying each letter is an original illustration by a prominent artist in response to the text — including beloved children’s book illustrators like Sophie Blackall, Oliver Jeffers, Isabelle Arsenault, Jon Klassen, Shaun Tan, Olivier Tallec, Christian Robinson, Marianne Dubuc, Lisa Brown, Carson Ellis, Mo Willems, Peter Brown, and Maira Kalman.
Punctuating the book are a handful of full-page spreads by celebrated cartoonists and visual storytellers, including Chris Ware, Roz Chast, and Art Spiegelman.
Because this project was born of a deep concern for the future of books and a love of literature as a pillar of democratic society, we are donating 100% of proceeds from the book to the New York public library system in gratitude for their noble work in stewarding literature and democratizing access to the written record of human experience. The gesture is inspired in large part by James Baldwin’s moving recollection of how he used the library to read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon and Ursula K. Le Guin’s insistence that “a great library is freedom.” (Le Guin is one of four contributors we lost between the outset of the project and its completion. As far as I am aware, at the time of printing, her lovely poem-letter for this book is her last published work.)
Below is my introduction, as it appears in the book, detailing the project’s improbable origin story and optimistic cultural aspiration:
When asked in a famous questionnaire devised by the great French writer Marcel Proust about his idea of perfect happiness, David Bowie answered simply: “Reading.”
Growing up in communist Bulgaria, the daughter of an engineer father and a librarian mother who defected to computer software, I don’t recall being much of an early reader — a literary debt I seem to have spent the rest of my life repaying. But some of my happiest memories are of being read to — most deliciously by my grandmother. I remember her reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to me, long before I was able to appreciate the allegorical genius of this story written by a brilliant logician.
My grandmother, an engineer herself, had and still has an enormous library of classical literature, twentieth-century novels, and — my favorite as a child — various encyclopedias and atlases. But it wasn’t until I was older, when she told me about her father, that I came to understand the role of books in her life — not as mere intellectual decoration, but as a vital life force, as “meat and medicine and flame and flight and flower,” in the words of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks.
My great-grandfather had been an astronomer and a mathematician who, in the thick of Bulgaria’s communist dictatorship, taught himself English by hacking into the suppressed frequency of the BBC World Service and reading smuggled copies of The Catcher in the Rye, Little Women, The Grapes of Wrath, and a whole lot of Dickens and Hemingway. This middle-aged rebel would underline words in red ink, then write their Bulgarian translations or English synonyms in the margins. By the time he was fifty, he had become fluent. When his nine grandchildren were entrusted to his care, he set about passing on his insurgent legacy by teaching them English. When the kids grew hungry during their afternoon walks in the park, he wouldn’t hand out the sandwiches until they were able to ask in proper Queen’s English.
I never met my great-grandfather — he died days before I was born — but I came to love him through my grandmother’s recollections. Around the time when she first began regaling me with them, unbeknownst to me, a young American woman named Claudia — a philosophy graduate student at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York — began visiting libraries and universities across Eastern and Central Europe on various foundation grants as a representative of a Graduate Faculty program designed to support libraries and scholars throughout that region after nearly half a century of intellectual isolation. She visited libraries to talk about the social sciences and humanities, and to learn how local collections worked. She met with librarians — the keepers of the keys — who would show her beautiful illustrated books, illuminated manuscripts, incunabula, and rare journal archives. And she began to seek out picture-books from local bookstores, perhaps even some that my grandmother was reading to me at that very time.
Years later, that young woman would become an independent publisher of beautiful, unusual, conceptual children’s books — the kind I would go on to celebrate in my own adult life, having transplanted myself from Bulgaria to Brooklyn, in no small part thanks to a life of reading.
And so it was that a package arrived in my Brooklyn mailbox one day, containing three exquisite wordless picture books by a French artist — not “children’s” books so much as visual works of philosophy, telling thoughtful and sensitive stories of love, loss, loneliness, and redemption. Enchanted, I looked for the sender and was astonished to find an address in the building next door. Enchanted Lion Books, it said. How perfect, I thought.
The sender’s name was Claudia Zoe Bedrick, the publisher. Apparently, we had been working at adjacent studios on the same Brooklyn block. And so Claudia and I finally met, having orbited each other unwittingly for decades, around the shared sun of story and image.
The dawn of our fast friendship was also a peculiar point in culture. Those were the early days of ebooks and the golden age of social media, when the very notion of reading — of intellectual, emotional, and spiritual surrender to a cohesive thread of thought composed by another human being, through which your own interior world can undergo a symphonic transformation — was becoming tattered by the fragment fetishism of the web. Even those of us who partook in the medium openheartedly and optimistically were beginning to feel the chill of its looming shadow.
Once again, I found myself torn between two worlds — not ideologies as starkly recognizable as the Bulgarian communism of my childhood and the American capitalism of my adulthood, but distinct paradigms nonetheless. I reconciled them — a subjective, personal reconciliation, to be sure — by spending my days reading books, mostly tomes of timeless splendor written long ago by people dead and often forgotten, then writing about them on the Internet, which I came to use as one giant margin for annotating my readings, my thoughts, and my search for meaning. Although I have always been agnostic about the medium of reading — I refuse to believe that reading Aristotle on a tablet or listening to Susan Sontag in an audiobook is necessarily inferior to reading from a printed book — I was beginning to worry, as was Claudia, about what reading itself, as a relationship to one’s own mind and not a relationship to the matter of silicon or pulped wood, might look like for the generations
I took solace in a beautiful 1930 essay by Hermann Hesse titled “The Magic of the Book,” in which the Nobel laureate argued that no matter how much our technology may evolve, reading will remain an elemental human hunger. Decades before the Internet as we know it existed, Hesse wrote: “We need not fear a future elimination of the book. On the contrary, the more that certain needs for entertainment and education are satisfied through other inventions, the more the book will win back in dignity and authority.”
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 as 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.
So began an eight-year adventure of reaching out to some of the people we most admired, inviting each to write a short letter to the young readers of today and tomorrow about how reading sculpted their character and their destiny. We then paired each letter with an illustrator, artist, or graphic designer to bring its message to life visually.
We decided that we would donate all the proceeds from the project to our local New York public library system, because libraries are bastions of democracy and oxygen for the life of the mind, which, as my great-grandfather knew, is our single most ferocious frontier of resistance to inequality and injustice.
Looking back on this labor of love, I am filled with gladness and gratitude for the 121 letters we received — the poetic, the playful, the deeply personal — from contributors as varied as scientists like Jane Goodall and Janna Levin, musicians like Yo-Yo Ma and Amanda Palmer, writers like Jacqueline Woodson and Neil Gaiman, artists like Marina Abramović and Chris Ware, to philosophers, composers, poets, astrophysicists, actors, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more remarkable humans whose splendor of spirit cannot be contained in the shorthand descriptors we often use to condense a person’s character and cultural contribution.
From these micro-memoirs and reflections by lifelong readers who have made extraordinary lives for themselves emerges a kind of encyclopedia of personhood, an atlas of possibility for the land of being mapped through the land of literature.
Because this is a 250-page love letter to literature drawn from the body of culture, present and past, we decided to tuck into it — quite literally: in the endpapers — a special wink at the most impassioned bibliophiles. Here is my short note on it, as it appears in the back matter of the book:
“I’m not sure that anybody thinks about endpaper except publishers, and probably not more than 1800 people in the United States have ever heard the word ‘endpaper,’” E.B. White wrote to his editor, the visionary Ursula Nordstrom, before insisting that the endpapers of his Charlotte’s Web be beautiful. The loveliest of books are touched by the author’s thoughtfulness and care in every detail.
A Velocity of Being borrows its endpapers from one of the most imaginative details an author ever slipped into a book.
In 1759, Laurence Sterne began composing The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman — a seven-volume novel that would take him a decade to complete and would revolutionize the art of storytelling. Midway through the third volume, he placed a single marbled page — a shock of swirling color, strange and beautiful against the black-and-white of the book. Sterne himself considered it the “motley emblem” of his work, imbued with meaning open to interpretation but never fully penetrable. It was a small revolution — aesthetically, because the craft of marbling, developed in the Middle East, was a curious novelty in mid-18th-century Britain; conceptually, because the fluid dynamics of the dyes make each marbling unique and irreplicable, like each reading of a book, colored by the dynamics we bring to it, the swirl of its meaning co-created by author and reader.
Years ago, when A Velocity of Being was still an untitled baby of a project, my then-partner and I had the fortune of acquiring one of the handful of surviving first editions of Tristram Shandy at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. As I marveled at this centuries-old marbled page, I knew instantly that it would make the perfect endpaper — aesthetically and symbolically, a “motley emblem” of the joy and ever-swirling meaning of literature itself.
I invite you to enjoy A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader and gift it to every reader in your life, young and grown, knowing that each copy will contribute to the thriving of the public library system that ensures equal access to books for all, and that the letters and art on these pages will — I hope, I trust — long outlive us all, delighting and inspiring generations to come.
UPDATE: Read some of the individual letters, including ones by Jane Goodall, Alain de Botton, Rebecca Solnit, and Jacqueline Woodson, here. A dozen illustrators from the book have kindly given us permission to make beautiful prints of their artwork, all proceeds from which, like those from the book itself, benefit the public library system — please enjoy.
Published November 20, 2018