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Alain de Botton’s Lovely Letter to Children About Why We Read

“We wouldn’t need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well.”

Alain de Botton’s Lovely Letter to Children About Why We Read

In a lovely aside in his revolutionary treatise dethroning Earth as the center of the universe, Galileo exulted in the power of books: “What sublimity of mind was his who dreamed of finding means to communicate his deepest thoughts to any other person, though distant by mighty intervals of place and time!” Books, he argued, are our sole means of having superhuman powers while remaining resolutely human — the power of traversing the abysses of space, time, chance, and misunderstanding that gape between our own life, our own self, our own subjective experience, and another’s. Four centuries later, neuroscientists would probe the sublimity of the human mind and locate the central mystery of consciousness in this very thing, known as qualia — the raw feelings that make up the subjective interiority of our experiences. Literature, in this sense, is the supreme language of qualia — something Proust intuited when he contemplated why we read and concluded that a great book is a masterwork of translation, conveying to the reader a world of feelings and experiences that are foreign to his or her own consciousness.

That is what novelist, essayist, philosopher, and Proust-champion Alain de Botton explores in his 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, musicians, entrepreneurs, and philosophers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Art by Mouni Feddag for a letter by Alain de Botton from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader. Available as a print.

De Botton writes:

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.



For more book-loving loveliness from A Velocity of Being, savor Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful letter about how books solace, empower and transform us and a 100-year-old Holocaust survivor on how a book saved actual lives, then revisit De Botton on what makes a good communicator, what higher consciousness really means, and love, vulnerability, and the psychological paradox of sulking.


Lincoln on How to Handle Criticism

“If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.”

Lincoln on How to Handle Criticism

On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) issued the Emancipation Proclamation, granting legal freedom to more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans — one of the most revolutionary documents in the history of human rights. Millions rejoiced in this inflection point for justice and reverenced Lincoln’s moral courage. Among them was the twenty-three-year-old artist Francis Bicknell Carpenter, who was moved by what he saw as “an act unparalleled for moral grandeur in the history of mankind.”

A highly gifted artist, Carpenter had attained both critical and commercial success by his early twenties. Having already painted portraits of three presidents and such celebrated public figures as the Romantic poet James Russell Lowell and the visionary newspaperman Horace Greely (who figures prominently in Figuring), he was animated by “an intense desire to do something expressive” commemorating this landmark document. Aided by the financial and social capital of friends, he set out to persuade Lincoln to let him immortalize the occasion in a grand painting.

First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln by Francis Bicknell Carpenter, 1864

As soon as he secured the president’s consent, Carpenter left his New York studio and headed for Washington. On February 6, 1864, he met with Lincoln, who invited him to reside at the White House while working on the painting.

So began what would become First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln — a painting Carpenter completed in about four months. For more than a century and a half to come, it would bedeck the United States Capitol as both a benediction and a warning, for the moment it immortalizes would cost Lincoln his life and America its awakening.

Lincoln was heavily criticized for his anti-slavery views and his political idealism. One Democratic newspaper observed that “he has been prostrated often enough in his political schemes to have crushed the life out of any ordinary man.” But this was no ordinary man. He managed to effect such landmark change by cultivating a deliberate discipline in facing criticism. While his wife would later recall that newspaper attacks pained him greatly, Lincoln met them with the sole orientation that makes courageous action in the face of criticism not only possible but sustainable over the sweep of a life.

Abraham Lincoln (Photograph by Abraham Byers)

In his 1866 memoir, Six Months at the White House (public library | free ebook), Carpenter recounts a critical attack on Lincoln by a war committee. When one of the president’s officers, in possession of evidence directly discrediting the very claims of the attack, suggested that he contact the press with the facts to counter the criticism, Lincoln declined with these words:

I do the very best I know how — the very best I can; and I mean to keep doing so until the end. If the end brings me out all right, what is said against me won’t amount to anything. If the end brings me out wrong, ten angels swearing I was right would make no difference.

In August of 1863, seven months after signing the Emancipation Proclamation, he had articulated a similar sentiment about the document itself in a letter to one of his friends and early supporters, with whom he nonetheless disagreed on some of the political ideals he held dearest:

The proclamation, as law, either is valid or is not valid. If it is not valid, it needs no retraction. If it is valid, it cannot be retracted any more than the dead can be brought to life.

Complement with Walt Whitman, who celebrated Lincoln as America’s “greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality,” on not letting criticism sink your confidence, Adam Gopnik on Darwin’s brilliant strategy for preempting criticism, and Albert Einstein’s lovely letter of solidarity and advice to Marie Curie when she — even she — was besieged by vicious attacks, then revisit Lincoln on living with loss.


The Jazz of Physics: Cosmologist and Saxophonist Stephon Alexander on Decoding the Song of the Universe

“It is less about music being scientific and more about the universe being musical.”

The Jazz of Physics: Cosmologist and Saxophonist Stephon Alexander on Decoding the Song of the Universe

“All truth is comprised in music and mathematics,” Margaret Fuller wrote as she was spearheading the Transcendentalist movement and laying the groundwork for what would later be called feminism.

A century and a half after Fuller, theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander examines this dual seedbed of truth in The Jazz of Physics (public library) — part memoir of his improbable path to science and music, part captivating primer on modern physics, part manifesto for the power of cross-disciplinary thinking and improvisation in unlocking new chambers of possibility for the human mind’s intercourse with the universe and the nature of reality.

Stephon Alexander

Drawing on the legacy of Kepler, who composed the world’s first work of science fiction — a clever allegory advancing the then-controversial Copernican model of the universe through a conceptually ingenious analogy — Alexander writes:

Contrary to the logical structure innate in physical law, in our attempts to reveal new vistas in our understanding, we often must embrace an irrational, illogical process, sometimes fraught with mistakes and improvisational thinking. Although it is important for both jazz musicians and physicists to strive for technical and theoretical mastery in their respective disciplines, innovation demands that they go beyond the skill sets they have mastered. Key to innovation in theoretical physics is the power of analogical reasoning.

But while Alexander does draw heavily on analogies throughout the book, the parallels and equivalences between music and physics are often far more literal. “It is less about music being scientific and more about the universe being musical,” he writes, reminding us that stars, galaxies, and planets arose from sound waves in the plasma of the infant universe as spacetime vibrated like an instrument to produce the waves that leavened these essential cosmic structures.

Born in Trinidad, Alexander fell in love with science shortly after his family moved to the United States. Visiting the American Museum of Natural History with his third-grade class, he was mesmerized by a set of papers behind a thick pane of glass, inscribed with symbols that seemed otherworldly to his eight-year-old consciousness. Next to them was a portrait of their author — a wild-haired, mischievous-eyed oddball. This was his first encounter with Einstein, who would go on to be a lifelong hero as Alexander devoted himself to decoding the secrets of the universe.

Page proof corrections of Einstein’s paper Propagation of Sound in Partly Dissociated Gases, in Einstein’s hand. (Einstein papers, Instituut-Lorentz)

A few years later, as a teenager in the Bronx, he had a parallel experience of encountering a new, almost mystical language and recognizing it as an encoding of elemental truth. Through the gateway of hip hop and its wide-ranging influences spanning Caribbean and Latin music, Alexander discovered the saxophone and became besotted with the free jazz of Ornette Coleman. His parents eventually bought him a vintage alto saxophone at a garage sale, and so began his second great love affair with the universe. At the intersection of these two loves, Alexander found his calling. Within a decade, he was working on some of the most complex problems in modern physics by day, performing with some of the most legendary jazz musicians by night, and cross-pollinating the legacies of his great heroes: Einstein, Pythagoras, John Coltrane. He recounts a defining moment:

About a decade ago, I sat alone in a dim café on the main drag of Amherst, Massachusetts, preparing for a physics faculty job presentation when an urge hit me. I found a pay phone with a local phone book and mustered up the courage to call Yusef Lateef, a legendary jazz musician, who had recently retired from the music department of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I had something I had to tell him.

Like an addict after a fix, my fingers raced through the pages anxiously seeking the number. I found it. The brisk wind of a New England autumn hit my face as I called him. At the risk of rudely imposing, I let the phone ring for quite a while.

“Hello?” a male voice finally answered.

“Hi, is Professor Lateef available?” I asked.

“Professor Lateef is not here,” said the voice, flatly.

“Could I leave him a message about the diagram that John Coltrane gave him as a birthday gift in ’61? I think I figured out what it means.”

There was a long pause. “Professor Lateef is here.”

We spoke for nearly two hours about the diagram that appeared in his acclaimed book Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns, which is a compilation of a myriad of scales from Europe, Asia, Africa, and all over the world. I expressed how I thought the diagram was related to another and seemingly unrelated field of study — quantum gravity — a grand theory intended to unify quantum mechanics with Einstein’s theory of general relativity. What I had realized, I told Lateef, was that the same geometric principle that motivated Einstein’s theory was reflected in Coltrane’s diagram.

Part of Einstein’s genius, Alexander points out, was his willingness to leap beyond the limits of his particular mathematical problem and into a field of possibilities, which he explored through improvisational experimentation — gedankenexperiments, or thought experiments. Einstein himself, who believed his best ideas came to him during his violin breaks, called his ideation process “combinatory play” — a wilderness of associations reaching across boundaries of various theories and fields of thought, not as deliberate problem-solving but as unforced mental meanderings.

Art by Vladimir Radunsky from On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein by Jennifer Berne.

Alexander, too, had a pivotal breakthrough in his scientific work during one such unexpected cross-pollination of ideas across disciplines, which steered the direction of his research in a way he could not have necessarily thought his way to directly and deliberately. During his time at as a postdoctoral student at London’s Imperial College, he met — at a “quantum gravity cocktail hour,” as one does — a serious-looking man with a gold tooth, dressed in black, who engaged in intense conversations about spacetime and relativity and the mathematics of waves. Alexander took him for a Russian physicist. He turned out to be the pioneering musician Brian Eno. The two soon became friends and Alexander came to see Eno as a singular species of “sound cosmologist.” He recounts the moment that catalyzed his breakthrough:

One of the most memorable and influential moments in my physics research occurred one morning when I walked into Brian’s studio. Normally, Brian was working on the details of a new tune — getting his bass sorted out just right for a track, getting a line just slightly behind the beat. He was a pioneer of ambient music and a prolific installation artist.

Eno described his work in the liner notes for his record, Ambient 1: Music for Airports: “Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” What he sought was a music of tone and atmosphere, rather than music that demanded active listening. But creating an easy listening track is anything but easy, so he often had his head immersed in meticulous sound analysis.

That particular morning, Brian was manipulating waveforms on his computer with an intimacy that made it feel as if he were speaking Wavalian, some native tongue of sound waves. What struck me was that Brian was playing with, arguably, the most fundamental concept in the universe — the physics of vibration. To quantum physicists, particles are described by the physics of vibration. And to quantum cosmologists, vibrations of fundamental entities such as strings could possibly be the key to the physics of the entire universe. The quantum scales those strings play are, unfortunately, terribly intangible, both mentally and physically, but there it was in front of me — sound — a tangible manifestation of vibration.

“Behavior of Waves” by Berenice Abbott, 1962, from her series Documenting Science.

This unexpected contact with sound made tangible shone a sidewise gleam on a question Alexander had been puzzling over ever since graduate school, when he had asked his mentor — the famed cosmologist Robert Brandenberger — what the most important question in cosmology was. Rather than an expected answer, like what may have caused the Big Bang, Brandenberger surprised the young man with his response: “How did the large-scale structure in the universe emerge and evolve?” Suddenly, in watching Eno manipulate waveforms, Alexander had a revelation. He explains:

Sound is a vibration that pushes a medium, such as air or something solid, to create traveling waves of pressure. Different sounds create different vibrations, which in turn create different pressure waves. We can draw pictures of these waves, called waveforms. A key point in the physics of vibrations is that every wave has a measurable wavelength and height. With respect to sound, the wavelength dictates the pitch, high or low, and the height, or amplitude, describes the volume.

If something is measurable, such as the length and height of waves, then you can give it a number. If you can put a number to something, then you can add more than one of them together, just by adding numbers together. And that’s what Brian was doing — adding up waveforms to get new ones. He was mixing simpler waveforms to make intricate sounds.

To physicists, this notion of adding up waves is known as the Fourier transform. It’s an intuitive idea, clearly demonstrated by dropping stones in a pond. If you drop a stone in a pond, a circular wave of a definite frequency radiates from the point of contact. If you drop another stone nearby, a second circular wave radiates outward, and the waves from the two stones start to interfere with each other, creating a more complicated wave pattern. What is incredible about the Fourier idea is that any waveform can be constructed by adding waves of the simplest form together. These simple “pure waves” are ones that regularly repeat themselves.


I was enthralled by the idea of decoding what I saw as the Rosetta stone of vibration — there was the known language of how waves create sound and music, which Eno was clearly skilled with, and then there was the unclear vibrational message of the quantum behavior in the early universe and how it has created large-scale structures. Waves and vibration make up the common thread, but the challenge was to link them in order to draw a clearer picture of how structure is formed and, ultimately, us.

In the remainder of The Jazz of Physics, Alexander explores how these questions reverberate through the consciousness of our species, from Pythagoras to string theory and beyond, into the future of probing the unfathomed depths of reality. Couple it with Nick Cave on music, transcendence, and artificial intelligence, then revisit the fascinating story of the century-long quest to hear the sound of spacetime.


Advice on Writing from Emily Dickinson’s Editor

“Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter: there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence.”

Advice on Writing from Emily Dickinson’s Editor

“You can never be sure / you die without knowing / whether anything you wrote was any good / if you have to be sure don’t write,” W.S. Merwin wrote in his gorgeous poem encapsulating his greatest mentor’s advice. No one has embodied this ethos more fully than Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886), who lived and died a century earlier never knowing whether anything she wrote was any good, never knowing whether and how and that her body of work would revolutionize literature and rewrite the common record of human thought and feeling.

In her thirty-first year, on the pages of a national magazine, Dickinson — a central figure in Figuring, from which this essay is adapted — encountered the person who would become the closest thing she ever had to a literary mentor.

In the spring of 1862, exactly four decades ahead of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, The Atlantic Monthly published a twenty-page piece titled “A Letter to a Young Contributor” by the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Thomas Wentworth Higginson (December 22, 1823–May 9, 1911).

Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Addressing young writers — primarily the many women who sent the Atlantic manuscripts for consideration under male pseudonyms — the thirty-nine-year-old Higginson writes:

No editor can ever afford the rejection of a good thing, and no author the publication of a bad one. The only difficulty lies in drawing the line.

A good editor, Higginson asserts, has learned to draw that line by having “educated his eye till it has become microscopic, like a naturalist’s, and can classify nine out of ten specimens by one glance at a scale or a feather.” He chooses a strangely morbid metaphor to illustrate the editorial challenge and thrill of finding that rare undiscovered genius among “the vast range of mediocrity”:

To take the lead in bringing forward a new genius is as fascinating a privilege as that of the physician who boasted to Sir Henry Halford of having been the first man to discover the Asiatic cholera and to communicate it to the public.

He goes on to offer a bundle of advice on how an aspiring writer is to court her prospective editor: Revise amply before sending in your manuscript; write legibly with “good pens, black ink, nice white paper and plenty of it”; develop a style of expression not “polite and prosaic” but “so saturated with warm life and delicious association that every sentence shall palpitate and thrill with the mere fascination of the syllables”; counterbalance profundity of sentiment with levity of style; know that “there is no severer test of literary training than in the power to prune out your most cherished sentence, when you find that the sacrifice will help the symmetry or vigor of the whole”; don’t show off your erudition but showcase its fruits; and remember that “a phrase may outweigh a library.” He writes:

There may be phrases which shall be palaces to dwell in, treasure-houses to explore; a single word may be a window from which one may perceive all the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them. Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter: there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence… Labor, therefore, not in thought alone, but in utterance; clothe and reclothe your grand conception twenty times, if need be, until you find some phrase that with its grandeur shall be lucid also.

In a sun-filled bedroom fifty miles to the west, a woman who had crowded lifetimes of passion into her thirty-one years and corked it up in the volcanic bosom of her being devoured the piece—a woman who would boldly defy Higginson’s indictment that a writer should use dashes only in “short allowance” or else they “will lose all their proper power,” a woman whose reclusive genius would become his choleric discovery.

Emily Dickinson’s home, the Homestead.(Photograph: Maria Popova)

For more than a decade, Dickinson had been welding her words to her experience with white heat in the private furnace of her being, sharing her poems only with her intimates. Now she felt beckoned to step across the threshold of the door Higginson had set ajar with his open letter inviting unknown writers into the public life of literature.

On April 16, 1862, Emily Dickinson sent Thomas Wentworth Higginson four of her poems, along with a short, arresting note in the slanted swoop of her barely decipherable hand, stripped of the era’s epistolary etiquette. “Mr. Higginson,” she addressed him bluntly, with no formal salutation, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” She was likely making an allusion, whether conscious or not, to her revered Aurora Leigh, in which Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s heroine exults in her calling while struggling to become a published poet:

I felt
My heart’s life throbbing in my verse to show
It lived

And then Dickinson added:

The Mind is so near itself — it cannot see, distinctly — and I have none to ask. Should you think it breathed — and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude.

She didn’t sign the letter, either, but instead enclosed a smaller sealed envelope with her name inscribed in pencil on a cream-colored notecard — a choice that would still puzzle Higginson thirty years later.

Two more letters followed shortly. Dickinson ended the third with the come-hither of a bespoke verse, then asked seductively: “Will you be my Preceptor, Mr. Higginson?” He would, and he did, commencing a correspondence that would last the poet’s lifetime.

Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Art by Maira Kalman. (The New Yorker)

But although Dickinson had so insistently enlisted Higginson as her “Preceptor,” again and again she would reject his efforts to tame and commercialize her poetry, to make it “more orderly,” buoyed by a quiet confidence in the integrity of her unorthodox verse. “Could you tell me how to grow,” she implored in her third letter to Higginson, “or is it unconveyed — like Melody — or Witchcraft?” When he offered criticism, then worried that he might have been too harsh, she assured him with humility and aplomb that it was all welcome: “Men do not call the surgeon, to commend—the Bone, but to set it, Sir, and fracture within, is more critical.” And then she promptly sent him four more poems, unheeding of his editorial suggestions.

Over the years, Dickinson would fracture Higginson’s stiff understanding of art, and through the cracks a new kind of light would flood his world. “There is always one thing to be grateful for — that one is one’s self & not somebody else,” she would tell him. Here stood a writer who was unassailably her own self. Between her unruly punctuation, Higginson would eventually find “flashes of wholly original and profound insight into nature and life,” language ablaze with “an extraordinary vividness of descriptive and imaginative power.” When her poems finally entered the world on November 12, 1890 — four years after her death — Higginson exulted in the preface:

In many cases these verses will seem to the reader like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them, giving a freshness and a fragrance not otherwise to be conveyed. In other cases, as in the few poems of shipwreck or of mental conflict, we can only wonder at the gift of vivid imagination by which this recluse woman can delineate, by a few touches, the very crises of physical or mental conflict… But the main quality of these poems is that of extraordinary grasp and insight, uttered with an uneven vigor sometimes exasperating, seemingly wayward, but really unsought and inevitable.

The volume was an astonishing success, much to the chagrin of Houghton Mifflin, who had originally rejected it. Five hundred copies vanished from the shelves on the first day of publication. Within the first year, the book had gone through eleven printings, and nearly eleven thousand copies had been absorbed into the body of culture.

That year, as the rapids of Dickinson’s verse sprang into the world, William James’s groundbreaking Principles of Psychology coined the notion of stream of consciousness. Soon, as English reviewers launched upon Dickinson attacks unequaled since those on Shelley and Keats a century earlier, Alice James — William James’s brilliant bedridden sister — would write wryly in her diary, itself an unheralded triumph of literature:

It is reassuring to hear the English pronouncement that Emily Dickinson is fifth-rate, they have such a capacity for missing quality; the robust evades them equally with the subtle… What tome of philosophy resumes the cheap farce or expresses the highest point of view of the aspiring soul more completely than the following —

     How dreary to be somebody
     How public, like a frog
     To tell your name the livelong day
     To an admiring bog.

For a different but intimately related side of Dickinson, savor her electric love letters to Susan Gilbert — her closest lifelong bond, who inspired the vast majority of her poetry — then take in some timeless advice on the craft from some of the greatest writers in the century and a half since: James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Jeanette Winterson, Mary Oliver, Zadie Smith, Susan Sontag, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, John Steinbeck, and Rachel Carson, another heroine of Figuring.


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