Kevin Kelly’s Letter to Children About the Glory of Books and the Superpower of Reading in an Image-Based Digital Culture
“More and more of our society is centered on pictures and images, which is a beautiful thing. But some of the most important parts of life are not visible in pictures.”
By Maria Popova
In his epoch-making 1632 book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems: Ptolemaic and Copernican, Galileo made a subtle case for how reading gives us super-human powers. Printed books were a young medium then, still in many ways a luxury for the privileged. But as the cogs of culture continued to turn, revolutionizing ideologies and technologies, making books common as daylight, the written word never lost this power. 350 years later, Carl Sagan — another patron saint of cosmic truth — echoed Galileo in his insistence that “a book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.” Hermann Hesse, too, knew this when he considered why we read and always will, no matter how technology may change, in his prescient 1930 essay “The Magic of the Book.”
Generations after Hesse and epochs after Galileo, amid a new wilderness of communication technologies and visual media, futurist, digital optimist, and Wired magazine founder Kevin Kelly takes up the case in his contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — my labor of love eight years in the making, collecting 121 original illustrated letters to children about why we read and how books transform us by some of the most inspiring humans in our world: entrepreneurs, poets, physicists, songwriters, artists, philosophers, deep-sea divers.
Dear Young Hero,
Imagine you can choose your own superpower from one of these three: flying, invisibility, or being able to read. You’d be the only person in the world with that superpower. Which one do you choose? Flying is not so useful without other superpowers. Invisibility is okay for being naughty or for a little fun but not good for much else. But if you were the only person who could read… you’d be the most powerful person on Earth. You would be able to tap into all the wisdom of the smartest people who ever lived. Their knowledge would go from their heads through squiggles on paper right into your head. You would learn things from them that no ordinary mortal would ever have enough time to learn. You would be as smart as everybody in total. Not that you have to remember it all. With reading you just look it up.
Reading is a superpower that also gives you a type of teleportation; it moves you a million miles instantly. That feeling of being immersed in a different place, or even a different time period, can be so strong you may not want to leave.
When you have this superpower you can see the world from the viewpoint of someone else. This helps protect you from the mistakes and untruths of others as well as your own ignorance.
More and more of our society is centered on pictures and images, which is a beautiful thing. But some of the most important parts of life are not visible in pictures: ideas, insights, logic, reason, mathematics, intelligence. These can’t be drawn, photographed, or pictured. They have to be conveyed in words, arranged in an orderly string, and can only be understood by those who have acquired the superpower of reading.
This superpower will always be with you; it will never leave you. But like all superpowers, it increases the more you use it. It works on paper and screens. As we invent new ways to read, its value and power will expand and deepen. At any time, reading beats any other superpower you can name.
For more letters from A Velocity of Being, all proceeds from which benefit the New York public library system, savor Jane Goodall on how reading shaped her life, Rebecca Solnit on how books solace, empower, and transform us, 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how one book saved actual lives, poet and farmer Laura Brown-Lavoie on the power of storytelling, and Alain de Botton on literature as a vehicle of understanding.
A selection of artwork from the book — a visual celebration of the written word — is available as prints, also benefiting the public library.
Published October 3, 2019