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Debbie Millman’s Touching Letter to Children About How Books Solace Our Heartbreak and Salve Our Existential Loneliness

“Books — like dogs — are among a handful of things on this planet that just want to be loved. And they will love you back, generously and selflessly, requiring very little in return.”

Debbie Millman’s Touching Letter to Children About How Books Solace Our Heartbreak and Salve Our Existential Loneliness

In her visionary 1826 novel The Last Man — an apocalyptic journey to the end of humanity, unfolding into a sublime philosophical meditation on how to live with unutterable existential loneliness — Mary Shelley, whose brilliant mother had died giving birth to her and who had buried three of her own children, her sister, and the love of her life by the age of twenty-five, poses to her autobiographically based protagonist the supreme challenge of existence: In a world made desolate by a plague that has snatched all his loved ones, all his compatriots, and eventually all his fellow human beings, leaving him the solitary endling of the species, how does he go on living? Where does he find sustenance not just for the biological process but for his mental, emotional, and spiritual survival?

Shelley sends him to Rome — the city where, after laying the body of her infant daughter in an unmarked grave, she herself had slowly been resuscitated from grief. Wandering the streets of the Eternal City, alone and alien, accompanied only by a loyal dog, her protagonist finds his first taste of consolation, his first glimmer of the will to live, in the verses of Virgil, in the books at the majestic library of Rome, containing the sum total of humanity’s wisdom — for the work of literature and philosophy, as Montaigne reminds us across the abyss of epochs, is to teach us how to live with death.

Reading The Last Man in a desolate season of my own life and finding in it the meta-solace Shelley’s protagonist found in literature, I was suddenly grateful anew for how books can so buoy us from the pit of being, and was reminded of Debbie Millman’s wonderful contribution to A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader (public library).

Original art by Dasha Tolstikova for Debbie Millman’s letter from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick.

She writes:

Dear Reader,

I want to tell you that everything will be okay.

I want to tell you that it will get better.

I want to tell you that it all works out in the end.

But sometimes it doesn’t.

Most times it is hard and we usually end up getting used to it. But there is something you can do in response: read.

Read until your heart breaks and you can’t stand it anymore. Read until you have paper cuts from turning pages or blisters from swiping a screen.

You see, here’s the thing: even at their worst, books won’t abandon you. If they make you cry it’s only because they are that good.

You can depend on books. They will always be there for you. Their patience is infinite and they have been known to save lives. They can help you become a smarter, more interesting person. Books can probably help you get dates, though I don’t recommend you ask that much of them too often (you don’t want to limit their power).

Books — like dogs — are among a handful of things on this planet that just want to be loved. And they will love you back, generously and selflessly, requiring very little in return — until they are complete, their light and their wisdom and their hearts sputtering to an inevitable, lonely end.

Debbie Millman

For more tastes of A Velocity of Being — a labor of love eight years in the making, all proceeds from which benefit the New York public library system — savor other wondrous letters to children: Rebecca Solnit, Jane Goodall, Alain de Botton, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alexander Chee, Kevin Kelly, and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin, then feast your eyes and heart on some stunning original art from the book, celebrating the joys, consolations, and life-expanding rewards of reading.

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Delight as a Daily Practice: A Poetic Illustrated Meditation on the Meaning of Happiness and Its Quiet Everyday Sources

A lovely countercultural invitation to savor the unpurchasable joys with which the world is strewn.

Delight as a Daily Practice: A Poetic Illustrated Meditation on the Meaning of Happiness and Its Quiet Everyday Sources

“What is your idea of perfect happiness?” asks the famous Proust Questionnaire. Posed to David Bowie, he answered simply: “Reading.” Jane Goodall answered: “Sitting by myself in the forest in Gombe National Park watching one of the chimpanzee mothers with her family.” Proust himself answered: “To live in contact with those I love, with the beauties of nature, with a quantity of books and music, and to have, within easy distance, a French theater.”

The touching specificity of these answers and the subtle universality pulsing beneath them reveal the most elemental truth about happiness: that there are as many flavors of it as there are consciousnesses capable of registering it, and that it is a universally delicious necessity of life, which we crave from the day we are born until the day we die. And yet, as Albert Camus lamented, “happiness has become an eccentric activity. The proof is that we tend to hide from others when we practice it.”

Half a century later, as we wade through a world that gives us ample reason for sorrow, as existential credibility seems meted out on the basis of how loudly one broadcasts one’s disadvantage, the savoring of happiness has become an almost countercultural activity — an act of courage and resistance, and one the practice of which is a whole life’s work, as George Eliot well knew when she observed that “one has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy.” Why, then, not make the learning of happiness as essential a part of young people’s education as the learning of arithmetic? Or even stand with Elizabeth Barrett Browning in deeming it our moral obligation?

All of that — the personal nature of happiness, the daily practice of it, its centrality to participating meaningfully in the world — is what poet Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie explores in her vibrant and vitalizing picture-book debut, Layla’s Happiness (public library), illustrated by artist Ashleigh Corrin.

Like Sylvia Plath, who composed The Bed Book for her own children, Tallie — who describes herself in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader as “the mother of three galaxies who look like daughters” — has written the book for her youngest galaxy, the book she wished she’d had to read to the elder two.

Tallie constructs the story like a good poem, where the personal is the most welcoming gateway to the universal. We see seven-year-old Layla — whose name means “night beauty” — tally her exuberant everyday sources of happiness.

Happiness leaps at Layla from the color purple, from the succulence of fresh plums, from the constellations of the night sky, from the mischievous delight of slurping spaghetti without a fork. It unspools from her lips as she hums while feeding the chickens at the community garden and names all the trees and greets the neighbors at the farmers’ market where she sells the vegetable she has grown from seeds. It pours forth from the poetry her mother reads to her under a makeshift tent and from the tales her father tells her of his own childhood in the South.

There is a heartening countercultural undertone to the book — these happinesses are not things to be purchased at the store or attained with a click, but embodiments of what Hermann Hesse held up as “the little joys” at the heart of a rich life lived with presence, the simple delights Wendell Berry’s childhood friend Nick savored even amid his hardship.

The book ends with an open question to the reader — a gentle bow to the sundry, deeply personal meaning of happiness.

Complement the exuberant Layla’s Happiness — which comes from my friends at Enchanted Lion, makers of such largehearted and unusual treasures as Cry, Heart, But Never Break, Big Wolf & Little Wolf, and This Is a Poem That Heals Fish — with Matt de la Peña and Loren Long’s illustrated celebration of the many meanings of love, then revisit Walt Whitman’s most direct reflection on happiness and Willa Cather’s delicious definition of it.

Page illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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Relationship Lessons from Trees

“I think of good love as something that roots, not rots, over time, and of the hyphae that are weaving through the ground below me, reaching out through the soil in search of mergings.”

Relationship Lessons from Trees

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter. “As a man is, so he sees.” Walt Whitman saw trees as the wisest of teachers; Hermann Hesse as our mightiest consolation for mortality. Wangari Maathai rooted in them a colossal act of resistance that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize. Poets have elegized their wisdom, artists have drawn from their form resonance with our human emotions, scientists are only just beginning to uncover their own secret language.

Robert Macfarlane — a rare enchanter who entwines the scientific and the poetic in his lyrical explorations of the natural world — offers a crowning curio in the canon of wisdom on human life drawn from trees in a passage from Underland: A Deep Time Journey (public library) — his magnificent soul-guided, science-lit tour of the hidden universe beneath our feet.

Art by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. (Available as a print.)

Macfarlane writes:

Lying there among the trees, despite a learned wariness towards anthropomorphism, I find it hard not to imagine these arboreal relations in terms of tenderness, generosity and even love: the respectful distance of their shy crowns, the kissing branches that have pleached with one another, the unseen connections forged by root and hyphae between seemingly distant trees. I remember something Louis de Bernières has written about a relationship that endured into old age: “we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.” As someone lucky to live in a long love, I recognize that gradual growing-towards and subterranean intertwining; the things that do not need to be said between us, the unspoken communication which can sometimes tilt troublingly towards silence, and the sharing of both happiness and pain. I think of good love as something that roots, not rots, over time, and of the hyphae that are weaving through the ground below me, reaching out through the soil in search of mergings. Theirs, too, seems to me then a version of love’s work.

Art from Trees at Night by Art Young, 1926. (Available as a print.)

Beneath the canopy, Macfarlane marvels at the slim contour of empty space around each tree’s crown — a phenomenon known as crown shyness, “whereby individual forest trees respect each other’s space, leaving slender running gaps between the end of one tree’s outermost leaves and the start of another’s.”

In this, too, I see a poignant lesson in love, evocative of Rilke and what may be the greatest relationship advice ever committed to words: “I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”

“Broken/hearted” by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Couple this tiny fragment of the sweepingly wondrous Underland with Amanda Palmer’s lovely reading of Mary Oliver’s poem “When I Am Among the Trees,” then revisit Kahlil Gibran on the difficult balance of intimacy and independence in love.

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Roar Like a Dandelion: Beloved Children’s Book Author and Poet Ruth Krauss’s Lost Alphabet of Joy, Illustrated

“Look under the bed for poetry.”

Roar Like a Dandelion: Beloved Children’s Book Author and Poet Ruth Krauss’s Lost Alphabet of Joy, Illustrated

“Her lovely and original poetry has a flexibility that allowed me the maximum of space to execute my fantasy variations on a Kraussian theme,” Maurice Sendak wrote of the great children’s book author and poet Ruth Krauss (July 25, 1901–July 10, 1993), with whom he collaborated on two of the loveliest, tenderest picture-books of all time.

A quarter century after the end of Krauss’s long life, lost fragments of her daring poetic imagination coalesced into a manuscript that alighted to the desk of one of the great picture-book artists of our own time: Sergio Ruzzier. The resulting collaboration, across lines of space and time and life and death, is the wondrously imaginative Roar Like a Dandelion (public library), the dedication of which, penned by Ruzzier in a spirit of creative kinship and reverence, reads simply: “To Maurice.”

Though structured as an ABC book, in a succession of short sentences each beginning with a consecutive letter of the alphabet, the book is rather an alphabetic catalogue of Krauss’s quirky, free-spirited, infinitely playfully, subtly profound prescriptions for joy and existential contentment.

“Vote for yourself,” Krauss urges under V, as a Ruzzier piglet is seen pledging allegiance to herself — that ultimate act of self-respect, the pillar of character.

“Roar like a dandelion,” she exhorts in the line that lent the book its title, which sits like a Zen koan, to be contemplated from a thousand directions before it can be cracked, suggesting maybe that the mightiest roar is the silent roar; maybe that anger is corrosive to its host, for if a dandelion were indeed to roar, it would blow up its own delicate seedhead and lose all of its fluffy white parachutes of hope; maybe that the dandelion’s yellow burst of blossom, so plentiful if we only pay attention, is nature’s primal scream of joy.

“Make music,” Krauss beckons in consonance with Sendak, who ardently believed that the making of music is the profoundest and most primitive expression of our intrinsic nature.

Page after page, letter by letter, Ruzzier’s sweet, and stubborn creatures leap and tumble along the lines of Krauss’s imagination with their joyous, mischievous magic.

Complement with Ruzzier’s charming meta-ode to the joy of reading, This Is Not a Picture Book, and Krauss’s final collaboration with Sendak, then delight in two other unusual and imaginative alphabet books: Daytime Visions, celebrating the whimsy of words, and Take Away the A, exploring the magic of how we make meaning.

Illustrations courtesy of Sergio Ruzzier; photographs by Maria Popova

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