“A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader” edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick. New York: Enchanted Lion Books, 2019. 272 pages, $34.95 (hardback).
“A Velocity of Being” is one of the most unusual and also one of the most satisfying books I have had the pleasure to review. Editors Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick became friends in Brooklyn in the early years of e-books and social media and both became concerned that reading “was becoming tattered by the fragment fetishism of the web.”
Although they took some solace from Herman Hesse’s statement in “The Magic of the Book” that “no matter how much our technology may evolve, reading will remain an elemental human hunger,” they decided to act in support of the written word by inviting “celebrated artists, writers, scientists and cultural heroes of various stripes – to share their stories and sentiments” about how reading had shaped them. It took them eight years to contact various individuals they admired and collect from each of them short letters to the young readers of today and tomorrow about the influence of reading on their particular character and destiny.
The editors also asked an illustrator, artist or graphic designer to illustrate each letter and “bring its message to life visually.” The end product is an excellent survey of what 121 outstanding individuals from numerous fields and diverse countries tell young readers about the incredible impact of reading on their lives and careers. One especially nice thing about investing in their book is that all profits will go to the New York Public Library systems.
Not all of the writers recalled being read to as a child or even started reading by themselves as very young children, but most attest to how reading opened to them new worlds of fantasy and fun and shaped their minds and souls. Many revealed that as youngsters they had read after bedtime under their sheets with a flashlight, as I suspect many of us have done. Several began reading books as young children that led them to pursue careers in studying space or oceans, for example. In my own case, I devoured every volume in the Landmark series of historical biographies for children and in other series as well.
One of the letters comes from Jacqueline Woodson, the author of numerous books for children and young adults who was named Young People’s Poet Laureate in 2015. She tells about reading to her son and tries “not to think that this moment of my youngest child beside me, the two of us inside one story, won’t always be here. This now is what matters, young reader. The moment we’re all living in is what counts – how will this moment, and the stories we’re living inside of change us ... forever?”
Artist John Maeda tells how his mother would take him to the library each week to teach him how to read increasingly harder books. He goes on to say: “I treasure that beginning; it was figuratively the very first page of my own life book.” Alexandra Horowitz, a scientist at Barnard College who studies dog cognition and wrote the best-seller “Inside of a Dog,” says: “Yesterday I swallowed a book. Opened it, read it voraciously, then gulped it down in a single sitting. … My entire life is traced by the books I have read. … A book, and the universe within, is the touchstone for today, yesterday, and – wow, I can’t wait to find out what I read tomorrow.”
Martha Nussbaum, professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, cites African American novelist Ralph Ellison’s comment that his book “The Invisible Man” could be “a raft of hope, perception and entertainment” on which America could “negotiate the snags and whirlpools” that stand between us and the democratic ideal.
Nussbaum points out that Ellison was of course referring to Huck Finn and Jim getting to know each other as full human beings, “rather than just as a white man and a black man,” traveling down the river on a raft together. Nussbaum goes on to say: “In our divided society, such encounters happen all too seldom in real life, and are fraught with mistrust when they do. Reading can create such encounters in the head, so that the ones that happen in the world are a little less crude, a little less deformed by fear and anger.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” tells about the day she played hooky from high school to curl up with Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” She was busted, but says the punishment she received was worth it because: “Those three hours were among the happiest of my life … I realized, ‘When I’m an adult, I can read whatever I want, whenever I want, and I will always be able to make myself happy.’ And that has turned out to be absolutely true. Thank you, books.”
Novelist Ann Patchett says that when she announced that she was going to open a bookstore in Nashville (Parnassus Books) people told her that bookstores were dead and that reading was dead. She found out, however, that “people have poured in wanting to talk about the books that they’ve read and ask what they should read next.” She recommends that readers read in public places and be willing to talk about their books when people ask if the book is good. Patchett concludes: “Without the book I would only be myself, but with the book there is no end to all the people I can be.”
Science fiction and fantasy author Ursula K. Leguin submitted a poem about dragons that go to sleep on heaps of treasure, but have no use for the written word. She says that she learned early to take pleasure in reading tales and poetry and that soon she knew that she preferred reading a book to fighting knights. Now that she is old and cannot see, a cheerful child comes every day to read to her and she still knows that every book contains a world!
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma reveals that his three heroes growing up were King Arthur, Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes and that some 50 years later they are still his heroes. He considers his Silk Road Ensemble as a modern version of the Knights of the Round Table and explains: “We go on quests, we seek adventure, we try to do good, and are willing to dream the impossible dream.” He also says that Robin Hood “shaped my sense of social justice and informed my idea of citizen musicians and artists working to respond to people’s needs.” Yo-Yo’s closing advice to his dear young friends of today and tomorrow is: “In your encounters with books, may you find your own heroes who will be our lifelong companions and help you build your own creative world.”
In perhaps the most heart-rending letter, Helen Fagin relates her experience of surviving Nazi oppression in the Polish ghetto. She says that reading anything forbidden by the Nazis would result in either hard labor or death. She set up a secret school for Jewish children and “told” them the story of “Gone with the Wind” because keeping a book hidden for more than one night was too dangerous. The children loved the story and asked for more, but this was unlikely and, unfortunately, out of the 22 pupils in the school only four survived the Holocaust. One of those four later met Fagin in New York and referred to Helen as “the source of my hopes and my dreams in times of total deprivation and dehumanization.”
“A Velocity of Being” is not the kind of book that parents will read to their children cover to cover, but it is a gold mine of stories testifying to the incredible benefits of reading that they can select from and share with youngsters and the creative and beautiful illustrations will challenge children to figure out how the image reflects the contents of the letter. Aside from a few typographical errors and a failure to provide brief biographical sketches of the authors that submitted two-page cartoons instead of letters or poems, I have found no drawbacks. I recommend this book very highly for sharing appreciation for the most valuable individual skill anyone can develop as a vehicle for exploring people and worlds of past, present and future and sharing these with others. Long live the book!
– Reviewed by Richard Weigel, Western Kentucky University History Department.