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Ursula K. Le Guin on Being a Man

A journey to where the semicolon meets the soul.

Who are we when we, to borrow Hannah Arendt’s enduring words, “are together with no one but ourselves”? However much we might exert ourselves on learning to stop letting others define us, the definitions continue to be hurled at us — definitions predicated on who we should be in relation to some concrete or abstract other, some ideal, some benchmark beyond the boundaries of who we already are.

One of the most important authors of our time, Ursula K. Le Guin has influenced such celebrated literary icons as Neil Gaiman and Salman Rushdie. At her best — and to seek the “best” in an altogether spectacular body of work seems almost antithetical — she blends anthropology, social psychology, and sheer literary artistry to explore complex, often difficult subjects with remarkable grace. Subjects, for instance, like who we are and what gender really means as we — men, women, ungendered souls — try to inhabit our constant tussle between inner and outer, individual and social, private and performative. This is what Le Guin examines in an extraordinary essay titled “Introducing Myself,” which Le Guin first wrote as a performance piece in the 1980s and later updated for the beautifully titled, beautifully written, beautifully wide-ranging 2004 collection The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination (public library). To speak of a subject so common by birth and so minced by public discourse in a way that is completely original and completely compelling is no small feat — in fact, it is the kind of feat of writing Jack Kerouac must have had in mind when he contemplated the crucial difference between genius and talent.

Ursula K. Le Guin by Laura Anglin

Le Guin writes:

I am a man. Now you may think I’ve made some kind of silly mistake about gender, or maybe that I’m trying to fool you, because my first name ends in a, and I own three bras, and I’ve been pregnant five times, and other things like that that you might have noticed, little details. But details don’t matter… I predate the invention of women by decades. Well, if you insist on pedantic accuracy, women have been invented several times in widely varying localities, but the inventors just didn’t know how to sell the product. Their distribution techniques were rudimentary and their market research was nil, and so of course the concept just didn’t get off the ground. Even with a genius behind it an invention has to find its market, and it seemed like for a long time the idea of women just didn’t make it to the bottom line. Models like the Austen and the Brontë were too complicated, and people just laughed at the Suffragette, and the Woolf was way too far ahead of its time.

Illustration from ‘The Human Body,’ 1959. Click image for details.

Noting that when she was born (1929), “there actually were only men” — lest we forget, even the twentieth century’s greatest public intellectuals of the female gender used the pronoun “he” to refer to the whole lot of human beings — Le Guin plays with this notion of the universal pronoun:

That’s who I am. I am the generic he, as in, “If anybody needs an abortion he will have to go to another state,” or “A writer knows which side his bread is buttered on.” That’s me, the writer, him. I am a man. Not maybe a first-rate man. I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may be in fact a kind of second-rate or imitation man, a Pretend-a-Him. As a him, I am to a genuine male him as a microwaved fish stick is to a whole grilled Chinook salmon.

Le Guin turns to the problem of the body, which is indeed problematic in the context of this Generic He:

I admit it, I am actually a very poor imitation or substitute man, and you could see it when I tried to wear those army surplus clothes with ammunition pockets that were trendy and I looked like a hen in a pillowcase. I am shaped wrong. People are supposed to be lean. You can’t be too thin, everybody says so, especially anorexics. People are supposed to be lean and taut, because that’s how men generally are, lean and taut, or anyhow that’s how a lot of men start out and some of them even stay that way. And men are people, people are men, that has been well established, and so people, real people, the right kind of people, are lean. But I’m really lousy at being people, because I’m not lean at all but sort of podgy, with actual fat places. I am untaut.

Illustration by Yang Liu from ‘Man Meets Woman,’ a pictogram critique of gender stereotypes. Click image for details.

For an example of someone who did Man right, Le Guin points to Hemingway, He with “the beard and the guns and the wives and the little short sentences,” and returns to her own insufficient Manness with a special wink at semicolons and a serious gleam at the significance of how we die:

I don’t have a gun and I don’t have even one wife and my sentences tend to go on and on and on, with all this syntax in them. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than have syntax. Or semicolons. I use a whole lot of half-assed semicolons; there was one of them just now; that was a semicolon after “semicolons,” and another one after “now.”

And another thing. Ernest Hemingway would have died rather than get old. And he did. He shot himself. A short sentence. Anything rather than a long sentence, a life sentence. Death sentences are short and very, very manly. Life sentences aren’t. They go on and on, all full of syntax and qualifying clauses and confusing references and getting old. And that brings up the real proof of what a mess I have made of being a man: I am not even young. Just about the time they finally started inventing women, I started getting old. And I went right on doing it. Shamelessly. I have allowed myself to get old and haven’t done one single thing about it, with a gun or anything.

But between the half-assed semicolons and the guns lies the crux of the gender-imitation problem — the tyranny of how we think and talk about sex:

Sex is even more boring as a spectator sport than all the other spectator sports, even baseball. If I am required to watch a sport instead of doing it, I’ll take show jumping. The horses are really good-looking. The people who ride them are mostly these sort of nazis, but like all nazis they are only as powerful and successful as the horse they are riding, and it is after all the horse who decides whether to jump that five-barred gate or stop short and let the nazi fall off over its neck. Only usually the horse doesn’t remember it has the option. Horses aren’t awfully bright. But in any case, show jumping and sex have a good deal in common, though you usually can only get show jumping on American TV if you can pick up a Canadian channel, which is not true of sex. Given the option, though I often forget that I have an option, I certainly would watch show jumping and do sex. Never the other way round. But I’m too old now for show jumping, and as for sex, who knows? I do; you don’t.

Le Guin parlays this subtle humor into her most serious and piercing point, partway between the tragic and the hopeful — the issue of aging:

Here I am, old, when I wrote this I was sixty years old, “a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” as Yeats said, but then, he was a man. And now I am over seventy. And it’s all my own fault. I get born before they invent women, and I live all these decades trying so hard to be a good man that I forget all about staying young, and so I didn’t. And my tenses get all mixed up. I just am young and then all of a sudden I was sixty and maybe eighty, and what next?

Not a whole lot.

I keep thinking there must have been something that a real man could have done about it. Something short of guns, but more effective than Oil of Olay. But I failed. I did nothing. I absolutely failed to stay young. And then I look back on all my strenuous efforts, because I really did try, I tried hard to be a man, to be a good man, and I see how I failed at that. I am at best a bad man. An imitation phony second-rate him with a ten-hair beard and semicolons. And I wonder what was the use. Sometimes I think I might just as well give the whole thing up. Sometimes I think I might just as well exercise my option, stop short in front of the five-barred gate, and let the nazi fall off onto his head. If I’m no good at pretending to be a man and no good at being young, I might just as well start pretending that I am an old woman. I am not sure that anybody has invented old women yet; but it might be worth trying.

The Wave in the Mind, like Le Guin’s mind, is joltingly original in its totality, Chinook salmon in the wild. Complement this particular bit with Anna Deavere Smith on how to stop letting others define us.

BP

Eating the Sun: A Lovely Illustrated Celebration of Wonder, the Science of How the Universe Works, and the Existential Mystery of Being Human

“When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.”

Eating the Sun: A Lovely Illustrated Celebration of Wonder, the Science of How the Universe Works, and the Existential Mystery of Being Human

“I’m stricken by the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else,” poet Diane Ackerman wrote in her Cosmic Pastoral, which so enchanted Carl Sagan — her doctoral advisor — that he sent a copy of the book to Timothy Leary in prison. “Wonder,” Ackerman observed nearly half a century later in her succulent performance at The Universe in Verse, “is the heaviest element in the periodic table of the heart. Even a tiny piece of it can stop time.”

That ricochet wonder, in its myriad kaleidoscopic manifestations diffracted by various scientific phenomena, reflected by various facets of this splendidly interconnected universe, and hungrily absorbed by the human heart, is at the center of Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe (public library) by Ella Frances Sanders — the boundlessly curious writer and artist who gave us Lost in Translation, that lovely illustrated dictionary of untranslatable words from around the world.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Sanders writes in the preface to this lyrical and luminous celebration of science and our consanguinity with the universe:

A sense of wonder can find you in many forms, sometimes loudly, sometimes as a whispering, sometimes even hiding inside other feelings — being in love, or unbalanced, or blue.

For me, it is looking at the night for so long that my eyes ache and I’m stuck seeing stars for hours afterwards, watching the way the ocean sways itself to sleep, or as the sky washes itself in colors for which I know I will never have the words — a world made from layers of rock and fossil and glittered imaginings that keeps tripping me up, demanding I pay attention to one leaf at a time, ensuring I can never pick up quite where I left off.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

With an eye to the miraculous absurdity of our existence — we only exist by chance, after all, in a universe governed by chaos and predicated on impermanence — Sanders writes:

When one is considering the universe, unseen matter, our small backyard of the stuff, I think it is important, sensible even, to try and find some balance between laughter and uncontrollable weeping.

Cry because we cannot even begin to understand how beautiful it is, cry because we are terribly flawed as a species, cry because it all seems so shockingly improbable that maybe our existence could be nothing but a dreamscape — celestial elephants in rooms without walls. But then? Surely, we can laugh.

Laugh because being riddled head-to-toe with human emotions while trying to come to terms with just how indisputably tiny we are in the grand scheme of things, makes absolutely everything and everyone seem quite ridiculous, entirely farcical. We have heads? Ridiculous! There are arguments about who is in charge here? Ridiculous! The universe is expanding? Ridiculous! We feel it necessary to keep secrets? Ridiculous.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

In fifty-one miniature essays, each accompanied by one of her playful and poignant ink-and-watercolor drawings, Sanders goes on to explore a pleasingly wide array of scientific mysteries and facts — evolution, chaos theory, clouds, the color blue, the nature of light, the wondrousness of octopuses, the measurement of time, Richard Feynman’s famous cataclysm sentence, the clockwork mesmerism of planetary motion, our microbiome, the puzzlement of why we dream. What emerges is something sweetly consonant with Nabokov’s exultation at our “capacity to wonder at trifles” — except, of course, even the smallest and most invisible of these processes, phenomena, and laws are not trifles but condensed miracles that make the everythingness of everything we know.

It is tempting, then — and Sanders succumbs to the temptation in a most delicious way — to seek the existential in the scientific, even if the thread between the two is slender and human-made, rather than woven by this vast unfeeling universe in which we warm ourselves with wonder. In a chapter on our organic composition, so memorably captured in Carl Sagan’s assertion that “we too are made of starstuff,” Sanders shines a sidewise gleam on the illusion of the solid and separate self:

Depending on where you look, what you touch, you are changing all the time. The carbon inside you, accounting for about 18 percent of your being, could have existed in any number of creatures or natural disasters before finding you. That particular atom residing somewhere above your left eyebrow? It could well have been a smooth, riverbed pebble before deciding to call you home.

You see, you are not so soft after all; you are rock and wave and the peeling bark of trees, you are ladybirds and the smell of a garden after the rain. When you put your best foot forward, you are taking the north side of a mountain with you.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Sanders revisits the subject through the lens of the physics beneath the chemistry in a chapter on the structure and discovery of the atom. In a passage evocative of physicist Alan Lightman’s wonderful explanation of why we are mostly restlessness and empty space, she writes:

Such a beautiful (and until recently invisible) idea, the importance and unavoidable nature of atoms, one that seems to put everyone and everything on a satisfyingly level playing field. Your good and bad decisions, your wingspan, your wholeness as a person — these are all possible because of your own 7 billion billion billion atoms, each one made up of (roughly speaking) a positive nucleus in the middle, and the negative electron cloud surrounding it — a cloud that sort of dances from side to side, alternately enchanting other atoms and pushing them away (the really complicated magic can be left to quantum mechanics). Without atoms, nothing would be here; not the book in your hands, not the pen that leaked into your pocket this morning, not those buildings that are enough to make you scared of heights, nothing. If it weren’t for atoms, there wouldn’t be mass, or molecules, or matter, or me, or you.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

The irrepressible human inquiry that magnetizes our imagination and draws us to the inner workings of the universe is the same inquiry Tolstoy scrawled into the diaries of his youth: “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” Sanders weaves these elemental questions — what are we made of and what does that make us? — into nearly every scientific curiosity she picks up, but she addresses them directly in a chapter devoted to our strangely continuous sense of self, devoid of a physical basis of continuity. She writes:

The idea of an unchanging “you” or “self” is inherently fraught with confusion and conflict, and if you consider the topic for too long it can begin to feel clammy, almost suspect. An apparent string running through all the previous versions of you — the one five minutes ago, a few hours ago, several years — the idea of “self” inevitably gets tangled up in things like the physical body and appearance, like memory. It’s clear that you cannot pin yourself down as any one particular “thing” but rather that you resemble a story line, an endless progression, variations on a theme, something that enables you to relate your present “self” to the past and future ones.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Echoing the great neurologist Oliver Sacks’s recognition of narrative as the cognitive pillar of personhood, she adds:

We do seem to make sense of ourselves and the world as a part of a narrative — we think in terms of main characters, those we speak and interact with, and where the beginnings, the middles, and the endings are.

Radiating from the book is lucid, lyrical consolation for the elemental disquietude of existence — the fact that haunting the fundamental laws of the universe and the sturdy certitude of their mathematics is the daily chaos of uncertainty with which we must somehow live, keeping one eye on our greatest loves and greatest losses, on the trifling urgencies of the mundane, and the other, wincing, on the only certainty there is: that one day we shall cease to exist. Sanders writes:

A lot of our time is spent trying to tie up loose ends, trying to shape disorder into something recognizably smooth, trying to escape the very limits that hold us close, happily ignoring rough edges and the inevitable. We separate ourselves out into past, present, and future, if only to show that we have changed, that we know better, that we have understood something inherent; if only to draw neat lines from start to finish without looking back.

The problem is that chaos is always only ever sitting just across the table, frequently glancing up from its newspaper, from its coffee cup filled with discolored and imploding stars. Because chaos too waits. Waits for you to notice it, for you to realize it’s the most dazzling thing you’ve ever seen, for all of your atoms to collectively shriek in belated recognition and stare, mouth open, at how exquisitely embedded it is in everything. Because we are not designed to be more orderly than anything else; seams have a tendency to come apart with time — you and the universe are the same in this way, which makes for a delicately overwhelming struggle.

So, then, if you can’t ever end things neatly, can’t ever put them back quite the way you found them, surely the alternative is to remain stubbornly carbonated with possibility, to never rest from your rotation. To keep assembling stories between us, stories about how everything was everything, about how much we loved.

Art from Eating the Sun: Small Musings on a Vast Universe by Ella Frances Sanders

Complement Eating the Sun with The Edge of the Sky — a poetic, unusual primer on the universe, written with the 1,000 most common words in the English language — and Carl Sagan on how to live with mystery, then revisit the great nineteenth-century naturalist John Muir on the universe as an infinite storm of beauty.

BP

A Velocity of Being: Illustrated Letters to Children about Why We Read by 121 of the Most Inspiring Humans in Our World

A labor of love 8 years in the making, featuring contributions by Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shonda Rhimes, Richard Branson, Marina Abramović, Judy Blume, and other remarkable humans living inspired and inspiring lives.

A Velocity of Being: Illustrated Letters to Children about Why We Read by 121 of the Most Inspiring Humans in Our World

One of the great cruelties and great glories of creative work is the wild discrepancy of timelines between vision and execution. When we dream up a project, we invariably underestimate the amount of time and effort required to make it a reality. Rather than a cognitive bug, perhaps this is the supreme coping mechanism of the creative mind — if we could see clearly the toil ahead at the outset of any creative endeavor, we might be too dispirited to begin, too reluctant to gamble between the heroic and the foolish, too paralyzed to walk the long and tenuous tightrope of hope and fear by which any worthwhile destination is reached.

If eight years ago, someone had told me that A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) would take eight years, I would have laughed, then cried, then promptly let go of the dream. And yet here it is, all these unfathomable years later, a reality — a collection of original letters to the children of today and tomorrow about why we read and what books do for the human spirit, composed by 121 of the most interesting and inspiring humans in our world: Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shonda Rhimes, Alain de Botton, James Gleick, Anne Lamott, Diane Ackerman, Judy Blume, Eve Ensler, David Byrne, Sylvia Earle, Richard Branson, Daniel Handler, Marina Abramović, Regina Spektor, Elizabeth Alexander, Adam Gopnik, Debbie Millman, Dani Shapiro, Tim Ferriss, Ann Patchett, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more immensely accomplished and largehearted artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Lara Hawthorne for a letter by Jacqueline Woodson from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Accompanying each letter is an original illustration by a prominent artist in response to the text — including beloved children’s book illustrators like Sophie Blackall, Oliver Jeffers, Isabelle Arsenault, Jon Klassen, Shaun Tan, Olivier Tallec, Christian Robinson, Marianne Dubuc, Lisa Brown, Carson Ellis, Mo Willems, Peter Brown, and Maira Kalman.

Art by Isabelle Arsenault for a letter by Jacqueline Novogratz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Art by Beatrice Alemagna for a letter by Adam Gopnik from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Vladimir Radunsky for a letter by Ann Patchett from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Marianne Dubuc for a letter by Elizabeth Gilbert from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Art by the Brothers Hilts for a letter by David Delgado from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Punctuating the book are a handful of full-page spreads by celebrated cartoonists and visual storytellers, including Chris Ware, Roz Chast, and Art Spiegelman.

Because this project was born of a deep concern for the future of books and a love of literature as a pillar of democratic society, we are donating 100% of proceeds from the book to the New York public library system in gratitude for their noble work in stewarding literature and democratizing access to the written record of human experience. The gesture is inspired in large part by James Baldwin’s moving recollection of how he used the library to read his way from Harlem to the literary pantheon and Ursula K. Le Guin’s insistence that “a great library is freedom.” (Le Guin is one of four contributors we lost between the outset of the project and its completion. As far as I am aware, at the time of printing, her lovely poem-letter for this book is her last published work.)

Art by Lia Halloran for a letter by Marina Abramović from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Ofra Amit for a letter by Mara Faye Lethem from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Christoph Niemann for a letter by William Powers from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Felicita Sala for a letter by David Whyte from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Brian Rea for a letter by Chris Anderson from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Oliver Jeffers for a letter by Holland Taylor from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Julie Paschkis for a letter by Sarah Lewis from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Maira Kalman for a letter by Paul Holdengräber from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Kenard Pak for a letter by Terry Teachout from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Violeta Lópiz for a letter by Lucianne Walkowicz from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.
Art by Sophie Blackall for a letter by Neil Gaiman from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Below is my introduction, as it appears in the book, detailing the project’s improbable origin story and optimistic cultural aspiration:

When asked in a famous questionnaire devised by the great French writer Marcel Proust about his idea of perfect happiness, David Bowie answered simply: “Reading.”

Growing up in communist Bulgaria, the daughter of an engineer father and a librarian mother who defected to computer software, I don’t recall being much of an early reader — a literary debt I seem to have spent the rest of my life repaying. But some of my happiest memories are of being read to — most deliciously by my grandmother. I remember her reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to me, long before I was able to appreciate the allegorical genius of this story written by a brilliant logician.

My grandmother, an engineer herself, had and still has an enormous library of classical literature, twentieth-century novels, and — my favorite as a child — various encyclopedias and atlases. But it wasn’t until I was older, when she told me about her father, that I came to understand the role of books in her life — not as mere intellectual decoration, but as a vital life force, as “meat and medicine and flame and flight and flower,” in the words of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks.

My great-grandfather had been an astronomer and a mathematician who, in the thick of Bulgaria’s communist dictatorship, taught himself English by hacking into the suppressed frequency of the BBC World Service and reading smuggled copies of The Catcher in the Rye, Little Women, The Grapes of Wrath, and a whole lot of Dickens and Hemingway. This middle-aged rebel would underline words in red ink, then write their Bulgarian translations or English synonyms in the margins. By the time he was fifty, he had become fluent. When his nine grandchildren were entrusted to his care, he set about passing on his insurgent legacy by teaching them English. When the kids grew hungry during their afternoon walks in the park, he wouldn’t hand out the sandwiches until they were able to ask in proper Queen’s English.

I never met my great-grandfather — he died days before I was born — but I came to love him through my grandmother’s recollections. Around the time when she first began regaling me with them, unbeknownst to me, a young American woman named Claudia — a philosophy graduate student at the Graduate Faculty of the New School for Social Research in New York — began visiting libraries and universities across Eastern and Central Europe on various foundation grants as a representative of a Graduate Faculty program designed to support libraries and scholars throughout that region after nearly half a century of intellectual isolation. She visited libraries to talk about the social sciences and humanities, and to learn how local collections worked. She met with librarians — the keepers of the keys — who would show her beautiful illustrated books, illuminated manuscripts, incunabula, and rare journal archives. And she began to seek out picture-books from local bookstores, perhaps even some that my grandmother was reading to me at that very time.

Years later, that young woman would become an independent publisher of beautiful, unusual, conceptual children’s books — the kind I would go on to celebrate in my own adult life, having transplanted myself from Bulgaria to Brooklyn, in no small part thanks to a life of reading.

And so it was that a package arrived in my Brooklyn mailbox one day, containing three exquisite wordless picture books by a French artist — not “children’s” books so much as visual works of philosophy, telling thoughtful and sensitive stories of love, loss, loneliness, and redemption. Enchanted, I looked for the sender and was astonished to find an address in the building next door. Enchanted Lion Books, it said. How perfect, I thought.

The sender’s name was Claudia Zoe Bedrick, the publisher. Apparently, we had been working at adjacent studios on the same Brooklyn block. And so Claudia and I finally met, having orbited each other unwittingly for decades, around the shared sun of story and image.

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.

Once again, I found myself torn between two worlds — not ideologies as starkly recognizable as the Bulgarian communism of my childhood and the American capitalism of my adulthood, but distinct paradigms nonetheless. I reconciled them — a subjective, personal reconciliation, to be sure — by spending my days reading books, mostly tomes of timeless splendor written long ago by people dead and often forgotten, then writing about them on the Internet, which I came to use as one giant margin for annotating my readings, my thoughts, and my search for meaning. Although I have always been agnostic about the medium of reading — I refuse to believe that reading Aristotle on a tablet or listening to Susan Sontag in an audiobook is necessarily inferior to reading from a printed book — I was beginning to worry, as was Claudia, about what reading itself, as a relationship to one’s own mind and not a relationship to the matter of silicon or pulped wood, might look like for the generations
to come.

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.”

Animated by a shared ardor for that “dignity and authority” of the written word, Claudia and I decided to do something about it — which is, of course, always the only acceptable form of complaint — not by fear-mongering or by waving the moralizing should-wand, but by demonstrating as plainly yet passionately as possible that a life of reading is a richer, nobler, larger, more shimmering life. And what better way of doing that than by inviting people cherished for having such lives — celebrated artists, writers, scientists, and cultural heroes of various stripes — to share their stories and sentiments about how reading shaped them? After all, we read what we are as much as we are what we read.

So began an eight-year adventure of reaching out to some of the people we most admired, inviting each to write a short letter to the young readers of today and tomorrow about how reading sculpted their character and their destiny. We then paired each letter with an illustrator, artist, or graphic designer to bring its message to life visually.

We decided that we would donate all the proceeds from the project to our local New York public library system, because libraries are bastions of democracy and oxygen for the life of the mind, which, as my great-grandfather knew, is our single most ferocious frontier of resistance to inequality and injustice.

Looking back on this labor of love, I am filled with gladness and gratitude for the 121 letters we received — the poetic, the playful, the deeply personal — from contributors as varied as scientists like Jane Goodall and Janna Levin, musicians like Yo-Yo Ma and Amanda Palmer, writers like Jacqueline Woodson and Neil Gaiman, artists like Marina Abramović and Chris Ware, to philosophers, composers, poets, astrophysicists, actors, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more remarkable humans whose splendor of spirit cannot be contained in the shorthand descriptors we often use to condense a person’s character and cultural contribution.

From these micro-memoirs and reflections by lifelong readers who have made extraordinary lives for themselves emerges a kind of encyclopedia of personhood, an atlas of possibility for the land of being mapped through the land of literature.

Art by the Fan Brothers for a letter by Janna Levin from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Because this is a 250-page love letter to literature drawn from the body of culture, present and past, we decided to tuck into it — quite literally: in the endpapers — a special wink at the most impassioned bibliophiles. Here is my short note on it, as it appears in the back matter of the book:

ENDPAPER NOTE

“I’m not sure that anybody thinks about endpaper except publishers, and probably not more than 1800 people in the United States have ever heard the word ‘endpaper,’” E.B. White wrote to his editor, the visionary Ursula Nordstrom, before insisting that the endpapers of his Charlotte’s Web be beautiful. The loveliest of books are touched by the author’s thoughtfulness and care in every detail. 

A Velocity of Being borrows its endpapers from one of the most imaginative details an author ever slipped into a book. 

In 1759, Laurence Sterne began composing The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman — a seven-volume novel that would take him a decade to complete and would revolutionize the art of storytelling. Midway through the third volume, he placed a single marbled page — a shock of swirling color, strange and beautiful against the black-and-white of the book. Sterne himself considered it the “motley emblem” of his work, imbued with meaning open to interpretation but never fully penetrable. It was a small revolution — aesthetically, because the craft of marbling, developed in the Middle East, was a curious novelty in mid-18th-century Britain; conceptually, because the fluid dynamics of the dyes make each marbling unique and irreplicable, like each reading of a book, colored by the dynamics we bring to it, the swirl of its meaning co-created by author and reader.

Years ago, when A Velocity of Being was still an untitled baby of a project, my then-partner and I had the fortune of acquiring one of the handful of surviving first editions of Tristram Shandy at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. As I marveled at this centuries-old marbled page, I knew instantly that it would make the perfect endpaper — aesthetically and symbolically, a “motley emblem” of the joy and ever-swirling meaning of literature itself.

The original marbled page in Tristram Shandy

I invite you to enjoy A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader and gift it to every reader in your life, young and grown, knowing that each copy will contribute to the thriving of the public library system that ensures equal access to books for all, and that the letters and art on these pages will — I hope, I trust — long outlive us all, delighting and inspiring generations to come.

UPDATE: Read some of the individual letters, including ones by Jane Goodall, Alain de Botton, Rebecca Solnit, and Jacqueline Woodson, here. Eleven illustrators from the book have kindly given us permission to make beautiful prints of their artwork, all proceeds from which, like those from the book itself, benefit the public library system — please enjoy.

BP

The Puzzle We Call Being: Walt Whitman on Listening to the Song of Existence, Animated

“Now I will do nothing but listen, / To accrue what I hear into this song…”

The Puzzle We Call Being: Walt Whitman on Listening to the Song of Existence, Animated

“Every atom in creation may be said to be acquainted with and married to every other,” the great naturalist John Muir wrote as he contemplated the interconnectedness of the universe not long after Walt Whitman issued his timeless, exquisite reminder that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” And yet, Muir recognized, “the note which any creature forms in the song of existence, it is made first for itself.” To hear the song of existence — ours, or another’s, or the entire symphony of being — is the supreme task of life. But how do we listen to that song when it is drowned out by the ceaseless noise of daily distraction, muffled by apathy, or crowded out by a cacophony of demands?

That is what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) explores with characteristic splendor of sentiment in the twenty-sixth of the fifty-two numbered section of Song of Myself included in the fourth edition of his revolutionary 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass (public library | free ebook).

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

Drawing on his reverence for nature and his reverence for music as the profoundest expression of nature, Whitman composes an invitation to listening that comes alive in this beautiful short film animated by Daniela Shere, narrated by Peter Blegvad, and produced by Massive Science founder Nadja Oertelt for Poetry of Perception — Harvard’s eight-part series exploring representations of sensation and perception through the literary and visual arts, which also brought to life Emily Dickinson’s stunning ode to resilience.

SONG OF MYSELF
Section 26

Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.

I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames,
clack of sticks cooking my meals,
I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night,
Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of
work-people at their meals,
The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick,
The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronouncing
a death-sentence,
The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the
refrain of the anchor-lifters,
The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streaking
engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color’d lights,
The steam-whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching cars,
The slow march play’d at the head of the association marching two and two,
(They go to guard some corpse, the flag-tops are draped with black muslin.)

I hear the violoncello, (’tis the young man’s heart’s complaint,)
I hear the key’d cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears,
It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.

I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera,
Ah this indeed is music — this suits me.

A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.

I hear the train’d soprano (what work with hers is this?)
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess’d them,
It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick’d by the indolent waves,
I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath,
Steep’d amid honey’d morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death,
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call Being.

Complement with artist Allen Crawford’s splendid illustrated rendition of Song of Myself, artist Margaret C. Cook’s stunning illustrations for a rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass, a rare recording of Orson Welles reading from the Whitman classic, and one of James Earl Jones, then revisit Whitman himself on creativity, democracy, the wisdom of trees, the building blocks of character, his most direct definition of happiness, and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

BP

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