Carl Sagan died 24 years ago, rejoining the cosmos. Whenever I crack open one of his books today, I get this feeling that he’s still here, his love and passion reaching out to me—a random human being alive in the year 2020—across time and space. How could that be?
Books are magical.
“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”
I am, as you are, a beneficiary of all the books ever written.
I cannot imagine a world where there is nothing equivalent to words or books. On the worst days of my life I would have no saving grace, no life boat. I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but I was saved, in many ways, by other people’s writing — all of them strangers, most of them already dead. (And not just saved, but rebuilt from broken pieces.)
My love for life led me to books, but books further fuelled this love. No one could read Jack Kerouac and continue to be placid or neutral about life:
“Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired, in the red fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running — that’s the way to live. All alone and free in the soft sands of the beach by the sigh of the sea out there, with the Ma-Wink fallopian virgin warm stars reflecting on the outer channel fluid belly waters.”
No one could read a Charles Bukowski poem and not burn with life or fall in love with the idea of falling in love:
“your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
And very few of us are left untouched or unmoved by the genius of Shakespeare:
“She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Life’s but a walking shadow, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.
I remember how, in the depths of my depression, walking around with Richard Russo’s “Empire Falls”, feeling strangely comforted by the flowing rhythm of Russo’s writing and the sorry tale of Miles Roby. This was the story of a man who ran a diner in a blue-collar American town full of abandoned mills, a setting far away from the circumstances of my own life, but here, for the first time as a 20-year-old, I learned of the river as a metaphor for life:
“Lives are rivers. We imagine we can direct their paths, though in the end there’s but one destination, and we end up being true to ourselves only because we have no choice.”
Books chart the tender and violent movements of the human heart, and remind us that our individual condition is also a universal condition, by virtue of our human-ness. We might not want to admit it, but we are all connected, mirrors and fragments of each other—lost bits floating around the universe—waiting for our final reunion.
“After all, what was the whole wide world but a place for people to yearn for their hearts’ impossible desires, for those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic, plausibility, and even the passage of time, as eternal as polished marble?”
Lastly I end with this quote by Carl Sagan, who knows, as much as I do, about the sheer magic of books:
“A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years.
Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.”