“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.
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:
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.
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.