How Books Solace, Empower, and Transform Us

Posted by Jacob Thompson on

Some books are toolkits you take up to fix things, from the most practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart, or to make things, from cakes to ships. Some books are wings… Some books are medicine, bitter but clarifying.

Galileo considered reading our sole means of having superhuman powers. For Kafka, a book was “the axe for the frozen sea inside us”; for Anaïs Nin, the alarm to awaken us from the slumber of almost-living; for Gwendolyn Brooks, “meat and medicine and flame and flight and flower.”

Since the invention of the printing press, books have fed the human animal’s irrepressible hunger for truth and meaning, and some of the most important exemplars of our species have extolled reading as a pillar of our very humanity. Among them is Rebecca Solnit — one of the most lyrical and insightful writers of our time.

In her beautiful memoiristic essay about how books saved her life, Solnit observed that “the object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed.” In childhood, when life itself is pure potential, a book becomes potential squared. Solnit speaks to this exquisitely in her contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a labor of love eight years in the making, comprising 121 illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us from some of the most inspiring humans in our world: artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Nearly every book has the same architecture — cover, spine, pages — but you open them onto worlds and gifts far beyond what paper and ink are, and on the inside, they are every shape and power. Some books are toolkits you take up to fix things, from the most practical to the most mysterious, from your house to your heart, or to make things, from cakes to ships. Some books are wings. Some are horses that run away with you. Some are parties to which you are invited, full of friends who are there even when you have no friends. In some books you meet one remarkable person; in others a whole group or even a culture. Some books are medicine, bitter but clarifying. Some books are puzzles, mazes, tangles, jungles. Some long books are journeys, and in the end, you are not the same person you were at the beginning. Some are handheld lights you can shine on almost anything.

 


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