REVIEW: A Dazzling Collection of Writers and Illustrators Make the Case for Reading

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A Velocity of Being, Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick, eds.

Enchanted Lion Books, 280 pp.

By Joan Silverman

Which of these statements is true: “A Velocity of Being” is the name of (a) a scientific tract, (b) an existential treatise, or (c) a children’s book? 

It is indeed the title of a children’s book — for middle school readers, or tweens, to be exact. But that’s like saying that candy is solely for children. “A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader” is for adults and kids alike — for anyone who’s ever thought about the meaning and value of books. It’s also a twofer in other ways: It’s an illustrated book with bold artwork on every spread, each letter paired with its graphic counterpart. And it’s undeniably a coffee table book for the grown-ups in the room. 

“Velocity” is a celebration of reading and books, and quite a feat, at that. The book’s editors, Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick, sought out authors of every stripe — novelists and scientists, artists and entrepreneurs — and asked each of them to write a letter to young readers. The list of contributors reads like a Who’s Who of contemporary culture — David Byrne and Yo-Yo Ma, Jane Goodall, Ursula K. Le Guin, Richard Branson, Anne Lamott — with 121 letters in all. Ditto for the many illustrators, including Maira Kalman and Roz Chast, who gave visual life to the project. Remarkably, the whole venture was an act of readerly altruism: Eight years later, the book has arrived, its contents donated, and its profits earmarked for the New York Public Library. That, in tribute to the essential, formative role that books and libraries play in our lives. 

Not surprisingly, the authors construed their task in various ways. Their “letters” take many forms — stories, poems, advice; in tones ranging from earnest to playful to witty. Contributors enumerate the many virtues of books — that they serve as companions, teachers, and solace; as antidotes to isolation and fear; that they save lives and connect us to the world. Alas, fewer iterations of these core themes would have bolstered the overall effect.

More compelling are the quirky, contrarian views that run throughout the book. There’s the musician who reminds us that we can read as much, or little, of a book as we choose — finishing it is optional; the radio producer who admits he often hates to read; and the essayist who contends we should read only for pleasure. Even comics and cartoons win a shout-out here. 

There’s no shortage of pieces by stealth readers who hid books under the covers, read by flashlight, or otherwise feared getting caught. Author Elizabeth Gilbert skipped school one day during junior year to stay home and read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. She got busted for lying and was grounded. Yet those furtive hours of reading were pivotal to her lifelong appreciation of books. 

A more dire story comes from Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin, who lived in a Polish ghetto where reading was punishable by hard labor, even death. Fagin ran a secret school to educate Jewish children, though she came to realize that classroom knowledge was sometimes beside the point.  

“What they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility,” Fagin writes. “There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts.”

Naturally this volume includes pronouncements on books themselves, many of them colorful and forward-looking: “What apps are to smartphones, books are to brains,” writes Canadian rapper and playwright Baba Brinkman. Nor do the letter-writers necessarily restrict themselves to the present. Physicist Alan Lightman addresses young readers a century from now, fully assuming that they’ll have microchips implanted in their brains. 

This feast of a book provides ample food for thought, with some dazzling visuals, to boot. But like many feasts, this one goes on at length, with flavors and courses that tend to overlap. Still, the collection will nourish readers of all kinds, deserving a permanent place on our bookshelves.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays, and book reviews. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune, and Dallas Morning News.