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Jane Goodall’s Lovely Letter to Children About How Reading Shaped Her Life

How a public library and a messy second-hand bookshop helped a small girl with no money and big dreams change the face of science.

Jane Goodall’s Lovely Letter to Children About How Reading Shaped Her Life

“Books feed and cure and chortle and collide,” Gwendolyn Brooks wrote in her 1969 ode to why we read. For Kafka, a book was “the axe for the frozen sea inside us”; for Galileo, nothing less than a source of superhuman powers. “Without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity,” Hermann Hesse wrote in his visionary 1930 meditation on “the magic of the book” and why we will always remain under its generous spell, no matter how the technologies of reading may change.

We read to remember. We read to forget. We read to make ourselves and remake ourselves and save ourselves. “I read the way a person might swim, to save his or her life,” Mary Oliver wrote in looking back on how books saved her. Most of all, we read to become selves. The wondrous gift of reading is that books can become both the life-raft to keep us from drowning and the very water that sculpts the riverbed of our lives, bending it this direction or that, traversing great distances and tessellated territories of being, chiseling through even the hardest rock.

That life-steering power of books is what pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall articulates with great simplicity and sweetness in her contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library) — a labor of love eight years in the making, comprising 121 illustrated letters to children about how books form and transform us by some of the most inspiring humans in our world: artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading.

Original art by Christian Robinson for Jane Goodall’s letter from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader.

Half a century after Simone de Beauvoir reflected on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, Goodall tells young readers about her formative childhood experience, as much a product of her time and place as of her singular predilections:

Dear Children,

I want to share something with you — and that is how much I loved books when I was your age. Of course, back then there was no Internet, no television — we learned everything from printed books. We didn’t have much money when I was a child and I couldn’t afford new books, so most of what I read came from our library. But I also used to spend hours in a very small second hand book shop. The owner was an old man who never had time to arrange his books properly. They were piled everywhere and I would sit there, surrounded by all that information about everything imaginable. I would save up any money I got for my birthday or doing odd jobs so that I could buy one of those books. Of course, you can look up everything on the Internet now. But there is something very special about a book — the feel of it in your hands and the way it looks on the table by your bed, or nestled in with others in the bookcase.

I loved to read in bed, and after I had to put the lights out I would read under the bedclothes with a torch, always hoping my mother would not come in and find out! I used to read curled up in front of the fire on a cold winter evening. And in the summer I would take my special books up my favorite tree in the garden. My Beech Tree. Up there I read stories of faraway places and I imagined I was there. I especially loved reading about Doctor Doolittle and how he learned to talk to animals. And I read about Tarzan of the Apes. And the more I read, the more I wanted to read.

I was ten years old when I decided I would go to Africa when I grew up to live with animals and write books about them. And that is what I did, eventually. I lived with chimpanzees in Africa and I am still writing books about them and other animals. In fact, I love writing books as much as reading them — I hope you will enjoy reading some of the ones that I have written for you.

Jane Goodall

Pair this taste of A Velocity of Being, all proceeds from which benefit the public library system, with Patrick McDonnell’s lovely picture-book about how Jane Goodall turned her childhood dream into reality, then revisit two other moving letters from A Velocity of Being — Rebecca Solnit on how books solace and empower us and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how a particular book saved particular lives.

Some of the original art from the book is available as prints, with all proceeds also benefiting the public library system. Find more about the project, and peek inside its lushly illustrated pages, here.

UPDATE: All copies of the book have fled to eager hands — it is currently sold out everywhere online, but the next batch is on the way. Meanwhile, some independent bookstores still have copies of the first edition, so go roam your neighborhood and make some new friends.

BP

Against Self-Righteousness: Anne Lamott on Forgiveness, Self-Forgiveness, and the Relationship Between Brokenness and Joy

“We are hardwired with curiosity inside us, because life knew that this would keep us going even in bad sailing… Life feeds anyone who is open to taste its food, wonder, and glee — its immediacy.”

Against Self-Righteousness: Anne Lamott on Forgiveness, Self-Forgiveness, and the Relationship Between Brokenness and Joy

Few things in life are more seductive than the artificial sweetness of being capital-R Right — of “winning the narrative,” as my friend Amanda likes to say. This delicious doom and glory of being Right — which is, of course, a matter of feeling rather than being it — tends to involve framing our emotional triggers as moral motives, then thundering them upon those we cast in the role of the Wrong, who may do the same in turn.

How, amid this ping-pong of righteousness grenades, do we maintain not only a clear-minded and pure-hearted relationship with reality, but also forgiveness and respect for others, which presuppose self-forgiveness and self-respect — the key to unlatching the essential capacity for joy that makes life worth living?

That is what the wise and wonderful Anne Lamott considers with uncommon self-awareness and generosity of insight throughout Almost Everything: Notes on Hope (public library) — the small, enormously soul-salving book that gave us Lamott on love, despair, and our capacity for change.

Anne Lamott

Lamott writes:

When we are stuck in our convictions and personas, we enter into the disease of having good ideas and being right… We think we have a lock on truth, with our burnished surfaces and articulation, but the bigger we pump ourselves up, the easier we are to prick with a pin. And the bigger we get, the harder it is to see the earth under our feet.

We all know the horror of having been Right with a capital R, feeling the surge of a cause, whether in politics or custody disputes. This rightness is so hot and steamy and exciting, until the inevitable rug gets pulled out from under us. Then we get to see that we almost never really know what is true, except what everybody else knows: that sometimes we’re all really lonely, and hollow, and stripped down to our most naked human selves.

It is the worst thing on earth, this truth about how little truth we know. I hate and resent it. And yet it is where new life rises from.

To let go of the tightly held convictions that keep us small, separate, and severed from the richness of life is to let the ego — the gallows on which our beliefs and identity hang — dissolve into an awareness of shared being, or what the poet Diane Ackerman called “the ricochet wonder of it all: the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.” Half a century after Bertrand Russell asserted that the key to growing old contentedly is to “make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life,” Lamott writes:

What comforts us is that, after we make ourselves crazy enough, we can let go inch by inch into just being here; every so often, briefly. There is flow everywhere in nature — glaciers are just rivers that are moving really, really slowly — so how could there not be flow in each of us? Or at least in most of us? When we detach or are detached by tragedy or choice from the tendrils of identity, unexpected elements feed us. There is weird food in the flow, like the wiggly bits that birds watch for in tidal channels. Protein and greens are obvious food, but so is buoyancy, when we don’t feel as mired in the silt of despair.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault from Mr. Gauguin’s Heart by Marie-Danielle Croteau.

From this recognition of the shared flow of existence — the wellspring of what the poet Lucille Clifton called “the bond of live things everywhere” — arises a calm universal compassion, which becomes the mightiest antidote to self-righteousness. Lamott writes:

Almost everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, scared, and yet designed for joy. Even (or especially) people who seem to have it more or less together are more like the rest of us than you would believe. I try not to compare my insides to their outsides, because this makes me much worse than I already am, and if I get to know them, they turn out to have plenty of irritability and shadow of their own. Besides, those few people who aren’t a mess are probably good for about twenty minutes of dinner conversation.

This is good news, that almost everyone is petty, narcissistic, secretly insecure, and in it for themselves, because a few of the funny ones may actually long to be friends with you and me. They can be real with us, the greatest relief.

As we develop love, appreciation, and forgiveness for others over time, we may accidentally develop those things toward ourselves, too.

Illustration by Japanese artist Komako Sakai for a special edition of The Velveteen Rabbit

Only by coming to terms with our own brokenness, Lamott suggests, can we build from the pieces a temple of joy — a state of being that is almost countercultural today, one which Lamott defines as “a slightly giddy appreciation, an inquisitive stirring, as when you see the first crocuses, the earliest struggling, stunted emergence of color in late winter, cream or gold against the tans and browns.” With an eye to the miracle of joy in a world so imperfect and strewn with suffering, she writes:

This is how most of us are — stripped down to the bone, living along a thin sliver of what we can bear and control, until life or a friend or disaster nudges us into baby steps of expansion. We’re all both irritating and a comfort, our insides both hard and gentle, our hearts both atrophied and pure.

How did we all get so screwed up? Putting aside our damaged parents, poverty, abuse, addiction, disease, and other unpleasantries, life just damages people. There is no way around this. Not all the glitter and concealer in the world can cover it up. We may have been raised in the illusion that if we played our cards right, life would work out. But it didn’t, it doesn’t.

[…]

Even with the Internet, deciphering the genetic code, and great advances in immunotherapy, life is frequently confusing at best, and guaranteed to be hard and weird and sad at times… We witness and try to alleviate others’ suffering, but sometimes it just outdoes itself and we are left gasping, groaning. And running through it all there is the jangle, both the machines outside and the chattering treeful of monkeys inside us.

Lamott reflects on the improbable relationship between brokenness and joy:

The lesson here is that there is no fix. There is, however, forgiveness. To forgive yourselves and others constantly is necessary. Not only is everyone screwed up, but everyone screws up.

How can we know all this, yet somehow experience joy? Because that’s how we’re designed — for awareness and curiosity. We are hardwired with curiosity inside us, because life knew that this would keep us going even in bad sailing… Life feeds anyone who is open to taste its food, wonder, and glee — its immediacy.

Art by Emily Hughes from Little Gardener

More than a century after Alice James — Henry and William James’s brilliant, underappreciated sister — observed from her deathbed that “[this] is the most supremely interesting moment in life, the only one in fact when living seems life,” Lamott adds:

We see this toward the end of many people’s lives, when everything in their wasted bodies fights to stay alive, for a few more kisses or bites of ice cream, one more hour with you. Life is still flowing through them: life is them.

[…]

That’s magic, or the human spirit, or hope — whatever you want to call it — to captivate, to share contented time.

Complement this particular portion of the wholly splendid Almost Everything: Notes on Hope with Joan Didion on learning not to mistake self-righteousness for morality and Ann Patchett on why self-forgiveness is the pillar of art, then revisit Lamott on friendship, finding meaning in a mad world, how perfectionism kills creativity, and her magnificent manifesto for handling haters.

BP

Elizabeth Gilbert Reads “The Early Hours” by Adam Zagajewski

An ode to the unsuspected gifts from the muse of sluggishness.

Elizabeth Gilbert Reads “The Early Hours” by Adam Zagajewski

“The most regretful people on earth,” Mary Oliver wrote in her beautiful reflection on the central commitment of the creative life, “are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” There is something lovely about this notion of giving time — a generous counterpoint to our culture of taking time, snatching it from the river of being with the fist of disciplined demand, only to see it slip through. The discipline of showing up is an absolutely necessary condition for all creative work, yes, but it is not a sufficient one. Sometimes — often — we show up, only to find nothing happens. Whatever it is we are showing up for — art, love — cannot be willed, cannot be wrested from the hour or the soul. We learn then that the work is the work, but the work is also the waiting — the exasperation, the surrender to despair, and the swell of joy on the other side of the surrender.

That is what the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski explores with great subtlety and great warmth in his poem “The Early Hours,” found in his collection Without End: New & Selected Poems (public library), translated by Clare Cavanagh (also the translator one of my favorite poets, the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, who lauded Cavanagh’s work as “that rare miracle when a translation stops being a translation and becomes… a second original.”)

What an honor to have the wonderful Elizabeth Gilbert, masterly serenader of and surrenderer to the muse, read the poem for Brain Pickings:

THE EARLY HOURS
by Adam Zagajewski

The early hours of morning; you still aren’t writing
(rather you aren’t even trying), you just read lazily.
Everything is idle, quiet, full, as if
it were a gift from the muse of sluggishness,

just as earlier, in childhood, on vacations, when a colored
map was slowly scrutinized before a trip, a map
promising so much, deep ponds in the forest
like glittering butterfly eyes, mountain meadows drowning
     sharp grass;

or the moment before sleep, when no dreams have appeared,
but they whisper their approach from all parts of the world,
their march, their pilgrimage, their vigil at the sickbed
(grown sick of wakefulness), and the quickening among medieval
     figures

compressed in endless stasis over the cathedral;
the early hours of morning silence
                                                            — you still aren’t writing,
you still understand so much.
                                        Joy is close.

Complement with Gilbert’s profoundly moving reflection on love and loss, then savor more great artists reading great poems: Amanda Palmer reading “Possibilities” and “Life While-You-Wait” by Wisława Szymborska and “Humanity i love you” by E.E. Cummings, James Gleick reading “At the Fishhouses” by Elizabeth Bishop, Terrance Hayes reading “cutting greens” by Lucille Clifton, Rosanne Cash reading “Power” by Adrienne Rich, and Janna Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, then revisit Rilke on inspiration and the nature of creativity.

BP

Figuring

I have composed a book. It only took twelve years of Brain Pickings and the most beautiful, difficult, disorienting experience of my personal life.

Figuring explores the complexities, varieties, and contradictions of love, and the human search for truth, meaning, and transcendence, through the interwoven lives of several historical figures across four centuries — beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement. Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists — mostly women, mostly queer — whose public contribution has risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson.

Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Caroline Herschel, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman — and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.

Long ago, a kindly interviewer asked me why I routinely declined offers for the types of easy, marketable books I am frequently approached about doing. I told him (please suspend judgment: I was in my twenties) that I had no interest in putting into the world a book that has the shelf life of a banana. I hope Figuring has the shelf life of a shelf.

Here is the prelude — chapter 0 of 29:

All of it — the rings of Saturn and my father’s wedding band, the underbelly of the clouds pinked by the rising sun, Einstein’s brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde, every grain of sand that made the glass that made the jar and each idea Einstein ever had, the shepherdess singing in the Rila mountains of my native Bulgaria and each one of her sheep, every hair on Chance’s velveteen dog ears and Marianne Moore’s red braid and the whiskers of Montaigne’s cat, every translucent fingernail on my friend Amanda’s newborn son, every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets before wading into the River Ouse to drown, every copper atom composing the disc that carried arias aboard the first human-made object to enter interstellar space and every oak splinter of the floor-boards onto which Beethoven collapsed in the fit of fury that cost him his hearing, the wetness of every tear that has ever been wept over a grave and the yellow of the beak of every raven that has ever watched the weepers, every cell in Galileo’s fleshy finger and every molecule of gas and dust that made the moons of Jupiter to which it pointed, the Dipper of freckles constellating the olive firmament of a certain forearm I love and every axonal flutter of the tenderness with which I love her, all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality — it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego.

How can we know this and still succumb to the illusion of separateness, of otherness? This veneer must have been what the confluence of accidents and atoms known as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., saw through when he spoke of our “inescapable network of mutuality,” what Walt Whitman punctured when he wrote that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

One autumn morning, as I read a dead poet’s letters in my friend Wendy’s backyard in San Francisco, I glimpse a fragment of that atomic mutuality. Midsentence, my peripheral vision — that glory of instinct honed by millennia of evolution — pulls me toward a miraculous sight: a small, shimmering red leaf twirling in midair. It seems for a moment to be dancing its final descent. But no — it remains suspended there, six feet above ground, orbiting an invisible center by an invisible force. For an instant I can see how such imperceptible causalities could drive the human mind to superstition, could impel medieval villagers to seek explanation in magic and witchcraft. But then I step closer and notice a fine spider’s web glistening in the air above the leaf, conspiring with gravity in this spinning miracle.

Neither the spider has planned for the leaf nor the leaf for the spider — and yet there they are, an accidental pendulum propelled by the same forces that cradle the moons of Jupiter in orbit, animated into this ephemeral early-morning splendor by eternal cosmic laws impervious to beauty and indifferent to meaning, yet replete with both to the bewildered human consciousness beholding it.

We spend our lives trying to discern where we end and the rest of the world begins. We snatch our freeze-frame of life from the simultaneity of existence by holding on to illusions of permanence, congruence, and linearity; of static selves and lives that unfold in sensical narratives. All the while, we mistake chance for choice, our labels and models of things for the things themselves, our records for our history. History is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance.

Some truths, like beauty, are best illuminated by the sidewise gleam of figuring, of meaning-making. In the course of our figuring, orbits intersect, often unbeknownst to the bodies they carry — intersections mappable only from the distance of decades or centuries. Facts crosshatch with other facts to shade in the nuances of a larger truth — not relativism, no, but the mightiest realism we have. We slice through the simultaneity by being everything at once: our first names and our last names, our loneliness and our society, our bold ambition and our blind hope, our unrequited and part-requited loves. Lives are lived in parallel and perpendicular, fathomed nonlinearly, figured not in the straight graphs of “biography” but in many-sided, many-splendored diagrams. Lives interweave with other lives, and out of the tapestry arise hints at answers to questions that raze to the bone of life: What are the building blocks of character, of contentment, of lasting achievement? How does a person come into self-possession and sovereignty of mind against the tide of convention and unreasoning collectivism? Does genius suffice for happiness, does distinction, does love? Two Nobel Prizes don’t seem to recompense the melancholy radiating from every photograph of the woman in the black laboratory dress. Is success a guarantee of fulfillment, or merely a promise as precarious as a marital vow? How, in this blink of existence bookended by nothingness, do we attain completeness of being?

There are infinitely many kinds of beautiful lives.

So much of the beauty, so much of what propels our pursuit of truth, stems from the invisible connections — between ideas, between disciplines, between the denizens of a particular time and a particular place, between the interior world of each pioneer and the mark they leave on the cave walls of culture, between faint figures who pass each other in the nocturne before the torchlight of a revolution lights the new day, with little more than a half-nod of kinship and a match to change hands.

Figuring (Pantheon, February 2019) is available for pre-order from Amazon, Powell’s, and other booksellers.

Cover design by the brilliant Peter Mendelsund.

More excerpts from the book here.

BP

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