Book Power: Gwendolyn Brooks’s Forgotten 1969 Ode to Why We Read

“Books feed and cure and chortle and collide.”

Book Power: Gwendolyn Brooks’s Forgotten 1969 Ode to Why We Read

“Someone reading a book is a sign of order in the world,” wrote the poet Mary Ruefle. “A book is a heart that beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit asserted in her lyrical meditation on why we read and write. But whatever our poetic images and metaphors for the varied ways in which books transform us — “the axe for the frozen sea within us,” per Franz Kafka, or “proof that humans are capable of working magic,” per Carl Sagan — the one indisputable constant is that they do transform us, in ways which we may not always be able to measure but can always feel in the core of our being.

That’s what Gwendolyn Brooks (June 7, 1917–December 2, 2000) celebrates in a lovely short poem titled “Book Power.” Originally written for National Children’s Book Week in 1969 — nearly two decades after Brooks, at only twenty-three, became the first black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize — it was eventually included in the 1998 out-of-print gem Book Poems: Poems from National Children’s Book Week, 1959–1998 (public library) and was later printed on a bookmark distributed for National Children’s Book Week.

Gwendolyn Brooks, 1957 (Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS)
Gwendolyn Brooks, 1957 (Photograph: Bettmann/CORBIS)

by Gwendolyn Brooks


In all this willful world
of thud and thump and thunder
man’s relevance to books
continues to declare.

Books are meat and medicine
and flame and flight and flower,
steel, stitch, and cloud and clout,
and drumbeats in the air.

Gwendolyn Brooks bookmark signed by the poet (courtesy of the Academy of American Poets)

Complement with Neil Gaiman on why we read, Hermann Hesse on why we always will, James Baldwin on how he read his way to a different destiny, and Maurice Sendak’s lovely posters celebrating reading, then revisit Brooks’s advice to writers and her visionary vintage poems for kids celebrating diversity and the universal spirit of childhood.

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