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.
Carl Sagan, 1980
What a lovely sentiment, given to me by a colleague at Unite for Literacy. I’m not sure of the context in which Sagan shared this perspective, but that last line offers me delightful visions of literacy teaching and learning as a more down-to-earth Hogwarts School of Reading and Writing.
Carl Sagan was an astrophysicist, astronomer, astrobiologist and cosmologist. He was a famous, learned and erudite man who illuminated the cosmos for us all, back in the ’80s and ’90s. He led an uncommonly consequential life, providing common men and women a glimpse into breathtaking possibilities of time and distance: Our solar system, our galaxy, our tiny corner of the vast universe. He also impressed his peers. He didn’t develop his frame of reference, his ability to share complex ideas by peering through a telescope, though. He created his ability to bring us along for the ride through books and television media like “Cosmos” (the best-selling science book ever published in English). He learned to write and speak beautifully with significant help from the books he read.
That is where the beauty of language such as his tends to reside, awaiting each new reader. Like most of us, and so many of our clientele, he probably started young. Astronomy and biology blended to form his path to greatness, made available by his reading. Once smitten by the vastness of the universe and an attraction for exploring this largest of unknowns, his own reading began to focus and become refined, forming and illuminating his lifelong career path from which we all still benefit.
This notion of literacy and books being the strongest evidence of our efforts at “working magic,” is a lens that we educators and parents can use to guide our leadership and show us the power of our feedback to our young magicians of print.
Might I suggest that we walk a fine line, unique to each child, to avoid squandering this almost sacred mantle we wear of literacy educators. Our job is helping little guys and gals see the magic and vision that await them in a lifetime of reading and learning. However, if we focus them too much on the personal meanings that we each create in our reading, we might lose the linguistic charms that authors offer in their books. If we focus too much on helping children master the specifics of Sagan’s dark squiggles, we may crowd out the deeper magic of the message.
Ergo, we must teach them to work their magic precisely with their No. 2 wands. AND we must ensure that they read avidly, so they might learn to cast the kinds of spells over their audiences for which Sagan was so revered.