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The Magic of the Book: Hermann Hesse on Why We Read and Always Will

“If anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books.”

The Magic of the Book: Hermann Hesse on Why We Read and Always Will

I recently decided to teach myself to write with my left hand. This unorthodox pastime was sparked in part by rereading the vintage treasure Essays for the Left Hand by the pioneering Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner, one of the loveliest and most underappreciated books written in the twentieth century. Since it was National Poetry Month, every day for the month of April I wrote out a poem a day with my left hand.

Beyond the tangible satisfaction of mastery painstakingly acquired, the endeavor had one unexpected and rather magical effect — it opened some strange and wonderful conduit through space and time, connecting me to the version of myself who was first learning to read and write as a child in Bulgaria. Generally lacking early childhood memories, I was suddenly electrified by a vividness of being, a vibrantly alive memory of the child’s pride and joy felt in those formative feats of the written word, of wresting boundless universes of meaning from pages filled with lines of squiggly characters.

Somehow, as we grow up and learn to read, the thrill of mastery hardens into habit and we let the magical slip into the mundane. We come to take this wondrous ability for granted.

No one has restored the transcendence of the written word more beautifully than Nobel-winning German-born Swiss writer and painter Hermann Hesse (July 2, 1877–August 9, 1962) in a sublime 1930 essay titled “The Magic of the Book,” found in his posthumously published treasure trove My Belief: Essays on Life and Art (public library).


Hesse writes:

Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest… Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity. And if anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books.

The question of what books do and what they are for is, of course, and abiding one. For Kafka, books were “the axe for the frozen sea within us”; for Carl Sagan, “proof that humans are capable of working magic”; for James Baldwin, a way to change our destiny; for Neil Gaiman, the vehicle for the deepest human truths; for Polish Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, our ultimate frontier of freedom. Falling closest to Galileo, who saw reading as a way of having superhuman powers, Hesse considers the historical role of the written word:

With all peoples the word and writing are holy and magical; naming and writing were originally magical operations, magical conquests of nature through the spirit, and everywhere the gift of writing was thought to be of divine origin. With most peoples, writing and reading were secret and holy arts reserved for the priesthood alone.


Today all this is apparently completely changed. Today, so it seems, the world of writing and of the intellect is open to everyone… Today, so it seems, being able to read and write is little more than being able to breathe… Writing and the book have apparently been divested of every special dignity, every enchantment, every magic… From a liberal, democratic point of view, this is progress and is accepted as a matter of course; from other points of view, however, it is a devaluation and vulgarization of the spirit.

Hermann Hesse’s typewriter (Photograph by Patti Smith from M Train)

And yet Hesse offers an optimistic counterpoint to the techno-dystopian narratives that have continued to spell out the death of the book in the almost-century since his essay. Writing just a few years after Virginia Woolf’s spirited admonition against the evils of cinema, Hesse argues that new media forms — radio and film then, the internet now — pose no threat to the book, for the book is singular in its spiritual value to human life:

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. For even the most childish intoxication with progress will soon be forced to recognize that writing and books have a function that is eternal. It will become evident that formulation in words and the handing on of these formulations through writing are not only important aids but actually the only means by which humanity can have a history and a continuing consciousness of itself.

In a remarkably prescient passage, he adds:

We have not quite reached the point where younger rivals like radio, film, and so forth have taken everything away from the printed book, but only that part of its function which is dispensable.


What the crowd does not yet suspect and will perhaps not discover for a long time has already begun to be decided among creators themselves: the fundamental distinction between the media through which an artistic goal is attempted. When this divorce is final, to be sure, there will still be sloppy novels and trashy films, whose creators are unstable talents, freebooters in areas in which they lack competence. But to the clarification of concepts and the relief of literature and her present rivals this separation will contribute much. Then the cinema will be no more able to damage literature than, for example, photography has hurt painting.

What lends the book this unshakable stability, Hesse argues, is precisely its magical character — a character immutable and irreplaceable however much our media might change. He writes:

The laws of the spirit change just as little as those of nature and it is equally impossible to “discard” them. Priesthoods and astrologers’ guilds can be dissolved or deprived of their privileges. Discoveries or poetic inventions that formerly were secret possessions of the few can be made accessible to the many, who can even be forced to learn about these treasures. But all this goes on at the most superficial level and in reality nothing in the world of the spirit has changed since Luther translated the Bible and Gutenberg invented the printing press. The whole magic is still there, and the spirit is still the secret of a small hierarchically organized band of privileged persons, only now the band has become anonymous.

Illustration from Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds by Jim Stoten
Illustration from Mr. Tweed’s Good Deeds by Jim Stoten

In a tremendously poignant sentiment that illustrates today’s culture-making, culture-breaking difference between artists and writers, on the one hand, and “content-creators” on the other — that is, presaging our vacant contentification of cultural material — Hesse adds:

Leadership has slipped out from the hands of priests and scholars to some place where it can no longer be called to account and made responsible, where, however, it can no longer legitimatize itself or appeal to any authority. For that stratum of writers and intellectuals which seems from time to time to lead because it shapes public opinion or at least supplies the slogans of the day — that stratum is not identical with the creative stratum.

That creative stratum, he argues, consists of timeless works that continue to enchant the public imagination decades or centuries or millennia after their creation, be they the ancient Eastern philosophies newly embraced by the West or the works of Nietzsche, “unanimously rejected by his people, after fulfilling his mission for a few dozen minds, became several decades too late a favorite author whose books could not be printed fast enough.” Hesse uses the word “poet” in that largest James Baldwian sense and in the very act of reaching us from beyond the finitude of his own lifetime, he stands as a testament to his own point:

We can observe every day how completely marvelous and like fairy tales are the histories of books, how at one moment they have the greatest enchantment and then again the gift of becoming invisible. Poets live and die, known by few or none, and we see their work after their death, often decades after their death, suddenly rise resplendent from the grave as though time did not exist.

And what they give us upon rising is precisely that magic of the book, so perennial and inextinguishable, yet so easily forgotten and taken for granted:

If today the ability to read is everyone’s portion, still only a few notice what a powerful talisman has thus been put into their hands. The child proud of his youthful knowledge of the alphabet first achieves for himself the reading of a verse or a saying, then the reading of a first little story, a fairy tale, and while those who have not been called seem to apply their reading ability to news reports or to the business sections of their newspapers, there are a few who remain constantly bewitched by the strange miracle of letters and words (which once, to be sure, were an enchantment and magic formula to everyone). From these few come the readers. They discover as children the few poems and stories … and instead of turning their backs on these things after acquiring the ability to read they press forward into the realm of books and discover step by step how vast, how various and blessed this world is! At first they took this world for a little child’s pretty garden with a tulip bed and a little fish pond; now the garden becomes a park, it becomes a landscape, a section of the earth, the world, it becomes Paradise and the Ivory Coast, it entices with constantly new enchantments, blooms in ever-new colors. And what yesterday appeared to be a garden or a park or a jungle, today or tomorrow is recognized as a temple, a temple with a thousand halls and courtyards in which the spirit of all nations and times is present, constantly waiting for reawakening, ever ready to recognize the many-voiced multiplicity of its phenomena as a unity. And for every true reader this endless world of books looks different, everyone seeks and recognizes himself in it… A thousand ways lead through the jungle to a thousand goals, and no goal is the final one; with each step new expanses open.

Walking library, London, 1930s (VSW Soibelman Syndicate News Agency Archive)
Walking library, London, 1930s (VSW Soibelman Syndicate News Agency Archive)

Half a century before Bob Dylan asserted that “the world don’t need any more songs [because] there’s enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs,” Hesse makes the same point — a point with which, as any regular reader would know, I very much agree — about books:

Every true reader could, even if not one new book were published, spend decades and centuries studying on, fighting on, continuing to rejoice in the treasure of those already at hand.

What lends reading its ultimate magic, Hesse asserts, is that this vast body of the written word is at once immensely varied and reducible to the simplest, most universal human truths:

The great and mysterious thing about this reading experience is this: the more discriminatingly, the more sensitively, and the more associatively we learn to read, the more clearly we see every thought and every poem in its uniqueness, its individuality, in its precise limitations and see that all beauty, all charm depend on this individuality and uniqueness — at the same time we come to realize ever more clearly how all these hundred thousand voices of nations strive toward the same goals, call upon the same gods by different names, dream the same wishes, suffer the same sorrows. Out of the thousandfold fabric of countless languages and books of several thousand years, in ecstatic instants there stares at the reader a marvelously noble and transcendent chimera: the countenance of humanity, charmed into unity from a thousand contradictory features.

My Belief remains a boundless treasure of Hesse’s genius, aglow with his luminous wisdom on everything from art to happiness to old age to the legacies of creative titans like Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Walt Whitman, Hans Christian Andersen, D.H. Lawrence, and Carl Jung. Complement it with Hesse’s beautiful correspondence with Thomas Mann, E.B. White on the future of reading, and Neil Gaiman on why we read and tell stories.


Your Body is a Space That Sees: Artist Lia Halloran’s Stunning Cyanotype Tribute to Women in Astronomy

From Hypatia of Alexandria to Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a beguiling homage to the heroines of illuminating the cosmos.

Your Body is a Space That Sees: Artist Lia Halloran’s Stunning Cyanotype Tribute to Women in Astronomy

“We reach forth and strain every nerve, but we seize only a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us,” astronomer Maria Mitchell observed as she paved the way for women in science. We are sensorial creatures, of course, and however little of the infinite we may seize, we do so through our powers of bodily perception. Squinting into her two-inch telescope to differentiate the colors of the stars, Mitchell marveled in her diary: “There is something of the same pleasure in noticing the hues that there is in looking at a collection of precious stones, or at a flower-garden in autumn. Blue stars I do not yet see, and but little lilac except through the telescope.”

Around the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, that dreamsome blue — the color of distance and desire — was tinting the world of another remarkable woman working in another branch of science. In 1843, English botanist Anna Atkins became the first female photographer and a pioneer of scientific illustration with her revolutionary cyanotypes of sea algae.

A century and a half later, LA-based artist Lia Halloran serenades the spirit of science-inspired art through this early imaging technique in a poetic project titled Your Body is a Space That Sees — a cyanotype celebration of women in astronomy, whose discoveries and contributions to understanding the universe date back to antiquity yet remain largely obscure.

PSR 1919 (after Jocelyn Bell Burnell)
PSR 1919 (after Jocelyn Bell Burnell)
Horsehead Nebula (after Williamina Fleming)
Horsehead Nebula (after Williamina Fleming)

Drawing on historical images and texts, Halloran, who holds an MFA in painting and printmaking from Yale, pays homage to astronomers ranging from Hypatia of Alexandria to Caroline Herschel (whose nephew John, incidentally, invented the cyanotype mere months before Anna Atkins pioneered its use in scientific illustration) to the team of women “computers” at the Harvard Observatory known as Pickering’s Harem.

Leavitt Crater
Leavitt Crater
Crater Hypatia
Crater Hypatia
Magallenic Clouds (after Cecila Payne)
Magallenic Clouds (after Cecila Payne)
Magallenic Cloud
Magallenic Cloud
Globular Cluster, (after Williamina Fleming)
Globular Cluster (after Williamina Fleming)
Barred Spiral (after Henrietta Leavitt)
Barred Spiral (after Henrietta Leavitt)

From craters to constellations, the images fuse a piercing intensity with an enigmatic subtlety that, like the universe itself, draw us into a beguiling mystery the full meaning of which remains enticingly beyond our reach.






Amplifying the mystery and magic of the final art is the gritty, hands-on nature of Halloran’s process:

More of Halloran’s immensely beautiful and thoughtful work at the intersection of art, science, and human life can be found on her site. Complement this particular project with artist Lauren Redniss’s cyanotype celebration of Marie Curie and trailblazing astronomer Vera Rubin on women in science, dark matter, and our never-ending quest to know the cosmos.


The Transactional Self: Psychologist Jerome Bruner on Social Mutuality, the Paradox of Privacy, and How Storytelling Shapes Our Sense of Personhood

“The components of the behavior … are not emotions, cognitions, and actions, each in isolation, but aspects of a larger whole that achieves its integration only within a cultural system.”

The Transactional Self: Psychologist Jerome Bruner on Social Mutuality, the Paradox of Privacy, and How Storytelling Shapes Our Sense of Personhood

Few people have revolutionized our understanding of the human mind, its learning mechanisms, and its creative potentialities more profoundly than the great Harvard psychologist and cognitive learning theorist Jerome Bruner (October 1, 1915–June 6, 2016) — a man of warm intellect and largehearted curiosity, whose brilliant mind was matched by a radiant spirit, and who has done for cognitive psychology what Oliver Sacks did for neurology.

Beginning in the 1960s, Bruner pioneered the modern study of creativity and examined how we construct our identity toward “creative wholeness.” By the mid-1980s, he turned to the cognitive machinery of the imagination and the human impulse for storytelling.

Jerome Bruner

In his magnificent 1986 book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (public library) — which gave us Bruner’s abiding insight into the psychology of what makes a great story and led me to philosopher Amelie Rorty’s tremendous taxonomy of the seven layers of what makes a person — he sets out to integrate the trifecta of emotion, cognition, and action that shapes our experience of life.

Long before Martha Nussbaum’s case for the intelligence of the emotions, he writes:

The components of the behavior … are not emotions, cognitions, and actions, each in isolation, but aspects of a larger whole that achieves its integration only within a cultural system. Emotion is not usefully isolated from the knowledge of the situation that arouses it. Cognition is not a form of pure knowing to which emotion is added (whether to perturb its clarity or not). And action is a final common path based on what one knows and feels. Indeed, our actions are frequently dedicated to keeping a state of knowledge from being upset (as in “autistic hostility”) or to the avoidance of situations that are anticipated to be emotion-arousing.

It seems far more useful to recognize at the start that all three terms represent abstractions, abstractions that have a high theoretical cost. The price we pay for such abstractions in the end is to lose sight of their structural interdependence. At whatever level we look, however detailed the analysis, the three are constituents of a unified whole. To isolate each is like studying the planes of a crystal separately, losing sight of the crystal that gives them being.

But if this tripod of being props up our individual personhood, the social and cultural ground upon which it stands is also of tremendous importance. In a fascinating chapter titled “The Transactional Self,” Bruner goes a step further and explores how our mutuality and interdependence with others shapes our sense of self. He writes:

If you engage for long in the study of how human beings relate to one another, especially through the use of language, you are bound to be struck by the importance of “transactions.” This is not an easy word to define. I want to signify those dealings which are premised on a mutual sharing of assumptions and beliefs about how the world is, how mind works, what we are up to, and how communication should proceed.

Art by Sydney Pink from Overcoming Creative Block
Art by Sydney Pink from Overcoming Creative Block

We seem to be equipped with a kind of inner radar for these social transactions. Bruner cites the results of one experiment in interpersonal perception, which tested how transparent people within small groups or cliques were to one another by asking each participant which other person in the group they would most like to spend time with, and who in the group they thought would most like to spend time with them. Bruner summarizes the partly intuitive, partly puzzling findings:

On average people are more accurate and more transparent than would be expected by chance — a not very startling finding. They know better than chance who likes them, or to put it inversely, people’s preferences are transparent.

But there is something very curious about how people operate in such situations that is not so obvious after all. For one thing, a person who chooses another will (in excess of chance) believe that the other person chooses him back. Or, since the direction of cause is never clear in human affairs, if we feel chosen by somebody, we will choose that person in return whether our feeling is correct or not. There is simply a human bias: feeling liked by somebody begets liking him back. To this add the fact that we know better than chance who likes us. Now, is this a matter of “accuracy” or of “vanity”? Are we “victims” of vanity or beneficiaries of our sensitivity?

Whichever the answer, this tendency of ours is more instinct than choice — in fact, Bruner argues, this “sense of mutuality in action” is so primal that it operates even before we’ve acquired language. Young children, he points out, have no trouble mastering dialectic shifters — a class of pronouns whose meaning one can grasp only by understanding the interpersonal context of who is speaking the pronoun and to whom it refers. In other words, when you say “I,” you mean yourself; when I say “I,” I mean myself, and although we are distinctly different people who use the same pronoun, even small children intuitively understand this shifting usage of “I.”

This intuition for intersubjectivity is how we’re able to experience the world as a shared reality. It is also essential to successful storytelling, from fiction to science communication. Bruner explains:

To create hypothetical entities and fictions, whether in science or in narrative, requires yet another power of language that … is early within reach of the language user. This is the capacity of language to create and stipulate realities of its own, its constitutiveness. We create realities by warning, by encouraging, by dubbing with titles, by naming, and by the manner in which words invite us to create “realities” in the world to correspond with them. Constitutiveness gives an externality and an apparent ontological status to the concepts words embody: for example, the law, gross national product, antimatter, the Renaissance… At our most unguarded, we are all Naive Realists who believe not only that we know what is “out there,” but also that it is out there for others as well… The private is rendered public. And thereby, once again, we locate ourselves in a world of shared reality.

Out of this shared context and the texture of our engagement with it, Bruner notes, arises our sense of self:

How we decide to enter into transaction with others linguistically and by what exchanges, how much we wish to do so (in contrast to remaining “detached” or “silent” or otherwise “private”), will shape our sense of what constitutes culturally acceptable transactions and our definition of our own scope and possibility in doing so — our “selfhood.”

And since our identity has an inherent narrative dimension — we are who we tell ourselves we are over time — this sense of selfhood is shaped by the storylines of our culture:

Stories define the range of canonical characters, the settings in which they operate, the actions that are permissible and comprehensible. And thereby they provide, so to speak, a map of possible roles and of possible worlds in which action, thought, and self-definition are permissible (or desirable). As we enter more actively into the life of a culture around us … we come increasingly to play parts defined by the “dramas” of that culture.


It can never be the case that there is a “self” independent of one’s cultural-historical existence.

But although the world might write some of the storylines for us, it behooves us to heed James Baldwin, who memorably remarked: “You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.”

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales

Ultimately, Bruner asserts, language and culture conspire in framing the stories which we come to inhabit:

Our “smooth” and easy transactions and the regulatory self that executes them, starting as a biological readiness based on a primitive appreciation of other minds, is then reinforced and enriched by the calibrational powers that language bestows, is given a larger-scale map on which to operate by the culture in which transactions take place, and ends by being a reflection of the history of that culture as that history is contained in the culture’s images, narratives, and tool kit.

Whether cognizant of Bruner’s work or just intuitively attuned, Toni Morrison would come to write nearly two decades later that “being your own story means you can always choose the tone.” But empowering as this truth may be, Bruner points out that it is incomplete and rooted in the limiting Western notion of the self as an artificial monument to individualism amid the inescapably social fabric of culture. That artificiality, Bruner argues, culminates in our fixation on “privacy.” He writes:

The notion of the “private” Self free of cultural definition is part of the stance inherent in our Western conception of Self. The nature of the “untold” and the “untellable” and our attitudes toward them are deeply cultural in character. Private impulses are defined as such by the culture. Obviously, the divide between “private” and “public” meanings prescribed by a given culture makes a great difference in the way people in that culture view such meanings… How a culture defines privacy plays an enormous part in what people feel private about and when and how. [But] we do not construct a reality solely on the basis of private encounters with exemplars of natural states. Most of our approaches to the world are mediated through negotiation with others.

This transactional self, Bruner reminds us, is held together by a narrative thread:

Insofar as we account for our own actions and for the human events that occur around us principally in terms of narrative, story, drama, it is conceivable that our sensitivity to narrative provides the major link between our own sense of self and our sense of others in the social world around us. The common coin may be provided by the forms of narrative that the culture offers us. Again, life could be said to imitate art.

Actual Minds, Possible Worlds is a fascinating and intellectually invigorating read in its entirety. Complement it with Martha Nussbaum on how storytelling rewires us and Vivian Gornick on how to own your story, then revisit Bruner on creative wholeness, art as a mode of knowing, and the six essential conditions for creativity.


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