The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Debbie Millman’s Touching Letter to Children About How Books Solace Our Heartbreak and Salve Our Existential Loneliness

Debbie Millman’s Touching Letter to Children About How Books Solace Our Heartbreak and Salve Our Existential Loneliness

In her visionary 1826 novel The Last Man — an apocalyptic journey to the end of humanity, unfolding into a sublime philosophical meditation on how to live with unutterable existential loneliness — Mary Shelley, whose brilliant mother had died giving birth to her and who had buried three of her own children, her sister, and the love of her life by the age of twenty-five, poses to her autobiographically based protagonist the supreme challenge of existence: In a world made desolate by a plague that has snatched all his loved ones, all his compatriots, and eventually all his fellow human beings, leaving him the solitary endling of the species, how does he go on living? Where does he find sustenance not just for the biological process but for his mental, emotional, and spiritual survival?

Shelley sends him to Rome — the city where, after laying the body of her infant daughter in an unmarked grave, she herself had slowly been resuscitated from grief. Wandering the streets of the Eternal City, alone and alien, accompanied only by a loyal dog, her protagonist finds his first taste of consolation, his first glimmer of the will to live, in the verses of Virgil, in the books at the majestic library of Rome, containing the sum total of humanity’s wisdom — for the work of literature and philosophy, as Montaigne reminds us across the abyss of epochs, is to teach us how to live with death.

Reading The Last Man in a desolate season of my own life and finding in it the meta-solace Shelley’s protagonist found in literature, I was suddenly grateful anew for how books can so buoy us from the pit of being, and was reminded of Debbie Millman’s wonderful contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library).

Original art by Dasha Tolstikova for Debbie Millman’s letter from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick.

She writes:

Dear Reader,

I want to tell you that everything will be okay.

I want to tell you that it will get better.

I want to tell you that it all works out in the end.

But sometimes it doesn’t.

Most times it is hard and we usually end up getting used to it. But there is something you can do in response: read.

Read until your heart breaks and you can’t stand it anymore. Read until you have paper cuts from turning pages or blisters from swiping a screen.

You see, here’s the thing: even at their worst, books won’t abandon you. If they make you cry it’s only because they are that good.

You can depend on books. They will always be there for you. Their patience is infinite and they have been known to save lives. They can help you become a smarter, more interesting person. Books can probably help you get dates, though I don’t recommend you ask that much of them too often (you don’t want to limit their power).

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 and selflessly, requiring very little in return — until they are complete, their light and their wisdom and their hearts sputtering to an inevitable, lonely end.

Debbie Millman

For more tastes of A Velocity of Being — a labor of love eight years in the making, all proceeds from which benefit the New York public library system — savor other wondrous letters to children: Rebecca Solnit, Jane Goodall, Alain de Botton, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alexander Chee, Kevin Kelly, and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin, then feast your eyes and heart on some stunning original art from the book, celebrating the joys, consolations, and life-expanding rewards of reading.

Published November 28, 2019




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