Galileo on Why We Read and How Books Give Us Superhuman Powers

books why_we_read

Why do we read? “A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on why we read and write. For Kafka, reading was “the axe for the frozen sea within us”; for James Baldwin, a way to change our destiny. “Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy,” E.B. White wrote in contemplating the future of reading in 1951. “A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic,” Carl Sagan asserted in his iconic Cosmos series, admiring the “funny dark squiggles” that have the uncanny power to transport us, across time and space, into the mind of another.

Nearly half a millennium earlier, another cosmic sage — Galileo Galilei (February 15, 1564–January 8, 1642), perhaps humanity’s greatest science-crusader and illuminator of the universe — made a strikingly similar observation, a parallel that speaks to the abiding allure of reading as our sole conduit to superhuman powers like time travel and telepathy.

With what admiration the reading of excellent poets fills anyone who attentively studies the invention and interpretation of concepts! And what shall I say of architecture? What of the art of navigation?

But surpassing all stupendous inventions, 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! Of talking with those who are in India; of speaking to those who are not yet born and will not be born for a thousand or ten thousand years; and with what facility, by the different arrangements of twenty characters upon a page!

Let this be the seal of all the admirable inventions of mankind.

C.S. Lewis on Why We Read

“A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,”* Rebecca Solnit wrote in her gorgeous contemplation of why we read. A century earlier, Kafka asserted in a memorable letter to his childhood friend that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” Indeed, the question of what books do for the human soul and spirit stretches from ancient meditations to contemporary theories about the four psychological functions of reading. But hardly anyone has articulated the enchantment of literature more succinctly yet beautifully than **C.S. Lewis** (November 29, 1898–November 22, 1963), a man deeply invested in the authenticity of the written word.

In his 1961 book *An Experiment in Criticism* (public library), he considers literatures’s immense power to expand our inner worlds:

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.

Carl Sagan on Books

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

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