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.
De Botton writes:
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.