Book Review: A Velocity of Being

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.

Cover courtesy: Brainpickings

…writes Maria Popova of Brainpickings fame in her introduction to A Velocity of Being, Letters to A Young Reader, edited by herself, and Claudia Bedrick, who has published this paean to reading, under Enchanted Lion Books. The book is a collection of 121 letters written to young readers, by creative people in several dimensions of life, about why they read, how does reading change them, who read to them when they were kids, and what sort of books they read now. Each letter is accompanied by visual interpretations of the letters, rendered by talented illustrators. From the passage I have quoted here, readers might come to a conclusion that Popova and Bedrick look down upon people who read on devices, but their truth is far from that. They don’t judge how you read, but they worry about the answer to the bigger questions — do you read at all? Will the generations who follow us read at all?

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.

It was at this point, when technology was actively changing the landscape of reading, Popova and Bedrick began a project that went on for 8 years — reaching out to writers, scientists, philosophers, musicians, and even a Holocaust survivor, requesting for letters from them, their offering to young readers, and for the young readers in adults — and ended with this book, a brilliant meditation on reading. The book is Popova and Bedrick’s gift to everybody involved in the grand, noble business of words. I picked up the book today to refer to my notes. Unwittingly, I read one letter after the other, ran my hands on the illustrations, only to realise that I was engrossed that I had almost forgotten to write this blog. It feels like A Velocity of Being has a beating heart; it almost can be felt when you touch the book, and something in you shifts, as though your love for reading quietly collides with the collective devotion that emanates from all the letters.

Image courtesy: Brainpickings

My favourite letters are the ones written by Jacqueline Woodson, Alain de Botton, Diane Ackerman, and Janna Levin. For now, I vividly remember their letters. A few months later, if you read the book, and talk to me about your favourites, I might say that I love what you love because I love everything about this book. In the Illustrations Department, each artist’s work is precious. Sometimes, the illustrations match the letters, and sometimes, they even lift them up. The Fan Brothers’ artwork of Where The Wild Things Are is ridiculously stunning that whenever I look at it, I gasp, and wish that I could be a part of that group, and listen to the monster read the book to me.

In her letter, Woodson writes about what reading does, and what matters most, as she holds her son, and reads a book to him. “…the two of us inside one story, won’t always be here…” — the priceless joy of sharing a story with someone, reading a book together. Diane Ackerman writes about the time when the bookmobile was her portal to multiple universes created by writers. “No matter where life takes you, you’re never alone with a book… they explore and celebrate all it means to be human,” says Ackerman. The title of the book is borrowed from Janna Levin’s letter. Levin is one of my favourite scientists, and I immensely enjoyed her book Black Hole Survival Guide. Her sciency letter reads, “Books look static and quiet but they are not. They exude a pressure. They have a melody and stride. But they are only effective when balanced by the pressure of the reader, when they can reflect as well as transmit, when they elongate or quicken according to the velocity of the reader. You, reader, define the experience of the book. Every book you read could only be read in precisely that way by you.” All the 121 of them, loudly, quietly, humorously, beseechingly, assertively, tell the young readers that books are our light to navigate this dark, cold, chaotic yet magnificent universe.

Who was I when I was as young as the intended audience of A Velocity of Being? I was a shy, anxious girl, who was deposited in the only library in my neighbourhood, by my sister who wanted a break from me as she went on adventures by herself. I wish I had the curiosity to look around, be enchanted by a cover art, be piqued by a title. I wish I had the courage to walk up to the stoic librarian, and ask for a recommendation. I sat on a stool, and prayed for my sister to return on time to collect me.

At school, I was taken to the library just a handful of times. It was hard to focus on what the librarian was saying, for my focus was constantly buried in my classmates’ giggles. The librarian had a massive mole on her chin, and several strands of hair hung from it. A harmless mole looked like a goatee on her face, and the girls in my class couldn’t look beyond that. Maybe, that undermined the librarian’s confidence. She always seemed restless, and removed, and the children were mean to her. I wish she had taken me into the safe world of books, but she had to fight her own battles. The librarian continued to work in the school, but the classes were suspended, ending my journey into the world of books, even before it started. So, A Velocity of Being magnified my loss unintentionally, but it’s still okay. I am in my early 30’s, and I want to be optimistic about making up for what I couldn’t access when I was younger.

That’s why Alain de Botton’s letter resonates with me the most. His letter has a universal tone; its audience can be anybody — the youngest, the younger, and the young.

Dear Reader,

We wouldn’t need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well. But they don’t. Even those who love us get us wrong. They tell us who we are but miss things out They claim to know what we need, but forget to ask us properly first. They can’t understand what we feel — and sometimes, we’re unable to tell them, because we don’t really understand it ourselves. That’s where books come in. They explain us to ourselves and to others, and make us feel less strange, less isolated and less alone. We might have lots of good friends, but even with the best friends in the world, there are things that no one quite gets. That’s the moment to turn to books. They are friends waiting for us any time we want them, and they will always speak honestly to us about what really matters. They are the perfect cure for loneliness. They can be our very closest friends.

Yours,
Alain

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