“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us,” Franz Kafka wrote to his childhood best friend. For Alexander Chee, another writer of titanic talent, Kafka’s metaphor came alive in his own childhood when his family moved from Guam to America, relinquishing the warm seas of the South Pacific for the frozen seas of Maine in search of a better life. Reading became a portal to places in the outside world he missed, places in his inner world he was only just beginning to discover.
Chee tells the story of the singular role books played in his self-creation in his lovely 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, philosophers.
Dear Reader of Tomorrow (and Today),
When I was your age I had an agreement with my mother: Whenever she went shopping, she left me at a bookstore or a library. Wherever we were in the world, that was our arrangement, and it made us both happy. As a result, I didn’t complain about how long it took her to shop, ever. If anything, when she came to get me, even though I loved her, I was a little sad.
They called me a bookworm when I was your age. I taught myself to read and walk at the same time so I could read more while I walked to school. My mother was always telling me I was going to ruin my eyes by reading so much but I am still the only one in my family who doesn’t need glasses — it may be I even strengthened my eyes.
I started reading so much back then because we had just moved to Maine and I had wanted us to stay in Guam. Maine seemed hard, cold and hopeless compared to the beautiful South Pacific island with warm seas and colorful fish that we had left behind. And while there was no way for me to return, in books I found doors to other worlds besides the one around me — and many other lives. Pretty soon, I was sneaking away to read, and it was because each of these books I loved felt like a present left behind for me by a stranger who somehow knew exactly how I felt.
I learned, gradually, to love Maine as much as Guam. But I read now for the same I reasons I read then — to feel less alone. But I read for more than that: Reading teaches me the answers to problems I haven’t had yet, or to problems I didn’t even know how to describe. And when I feel less alone with what troubles me, it is easier to find solutions. A book to me is like a friend, a shelter, advice, an argument with someone who cares enough to argue with me for a better answer than the one we both already have. Books aren’t just a door to another world — each book is part of a door to the whole world, a door that always has more behind it. Which is why I still can’t think of anything I’d rather do more than read.
For more excerpts from A Velocity of Being, all proceeds from which benefit the New York public library system, savor Rebecca Solnit’s beautiful letter about how books solace, empower, and transform us, Alain de Botton on literature as a vehicle of understanding, Jane Goodall on how reading shaped her life, and 100-year-old Holocaust survivor Helen Fagin on how a book saved actual lives.
A selection of the original art from the book is available as prints, also benefiting the public library system.