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Carl Sagan Believed Books Are “Magic” — Here Is Why He Was Right

I’ve read many books that have changed me and my direction in life. Sometimes it’s a slight course correction, and sometimes it’s a 90-degree handbrake turn. Once it happens, there is no going back. You can’t help become a lover of books and see the magic in them.

Still, saying books are “magic” might seem a stretch for some people.

But let’s consider this: words or “funny dark squiggles” on a page can fundamentally change how you see the world and the direction you take in life; can transport you across millennia and into the mind of another person; can make help you feel the emotions of another person, living another life, and possibly dead for centuries.

Isn’t that a form of magic?

The renowned scientist, astronomer, and author, Carl Sagan, certainly saw books as magic. In his television series called Cosmos, he makes us think about books in a new light with this poetical description:

“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.”

Seeing books in a new light

Like me, you may have grown up with access to books, but taken them for granted. In my house, those “flat objects made from a tree with flexible parts” usually just sat on the bookshelf gathering dust.

I associated books with “School” — the institution of forced learning. And 99% of what we were made read in school bored the hell out of me.

It wasn’t until my 20’s that chance encounters with incredible books, and exposure to lectures from the likes of Sagan and Alan Watts, made me think about them in a new and appreciative way.

I started to see them as tools — tools to “tap the wisdom of our species.” The more I read, the more it changed me, and the more I started to see the truth in Sagan’s assertion that books are “proof that humans are capable of working magic.”

3 Magical Qualities of Books

1) Books Are Magic Because They Change Lives

Right now, all around the world, people are reading books that will inspire them to follow a new path in their lives — most likely a path more true to themselves. I know this is true because I’ve experienced it. And this has been happening since the invention of the printing press.

Many of the world’s most accomplished people in their respective domains credit books with changing their lives and setting them off in the direction of their dreams.

  • The Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey credits the book The Greatest Salesman In The World by Og Mandino with changing his life. In an interview, he describes how the book gave him the confidence to change his career path from becoming a lawyer to an actor. He called the book “the most instrumental piece of literature and motivation” he’d ever read.
  • Scott Kelly, the famous Astronaut, and ex-commander of the International Space station has stated that Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff changed his life. He credits the book with opening his mind to another world and provided the inspiration for him to pursue his dream of becoming a pilot and eventually an astronaut. In fact, while in Space he wrote a letter to Tom Wolfe to thank him. It said:

“I just wanted to take this opportunity while I am still in space to send you a note of thanks and this picture of your book cover with me. When I was 18 years old I was directionless and a very poor student. I read your book and it changed my life.”

  • Steve Jobs was no doubt profoundly changed after reading Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. As one of the most creative and successful entrepreneurs in history, it is hard to say how much of an effect that book had on him, but the fact that it was his parting gift to his friends and colleagues at his memorial service says a lot.

2) Books Are Magic Because They Are Portals into the Minds of Dead People

As Sagan said:

“Books break the shackles of time” … “one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years.”

There is no other medium that allows us to “see” life through the eyes of another person the way books do.

An author’s thoughts, experiences, feelings, and emotions translated into words become immortalized on the page giving us detailed accounts of what life was like throughout recorded history.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (Roman Emperor, 161–180AD) is a perfect example of this. The book is a collection of his private diary entries and gives us a window into the mind of the world’s most powerful man at the time.

We learn what he was struggling with, how he thought about power and responsibility, the questions he asked himself daily as he strived to become a better person. These personal reflections, never intended for publication, contain powerful insights and profound wisdom which are as relevant today as they were almost 2000 years ago.

3) Books Are Magic Because They Are like a Software Upgrade for Your Brain

The way you feel about something before and after reading a book is never the same. Books change your perspectives by “updating” the lens through which you see the world.

Kevin Kelly, author, and founder of Wired magazine once said:

“I think the power of a book to change peoples mind is an amazing superpower .. that we could hand something with little scribbles on it and it would change how you thought and maybe even looked at the world”

When we read we are adding more information, ideas, and perspectives into our minds — into our database. The more we read and the more widely we read, the bigger the database of information we have from where we can draw perspectives and opinions about the world.

It’s no coincidence that many of the world’s greatest minds are huge readers (think Elon Musk, Warren Buffet). No doubt they have experienced the magic of books and know that they are one of the best ways to build a powerful and robust intellect.

Final Thoughts

Books have been changing the world, one reader at a time, since the invention of the printing press. The arc of history would surely look different if we hadn’t invented these “flat objects made from a tree with flexible parts.”

In the age of smartphones and “technological magic,” some might think books are outdated. The truth is they are as important and magical today as they have ever been. And the walls of libraries — physical and digital — are stacked with magic waiting to be unleashed.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in All Stories, Book Reviews, Happy Read, Non-Fiction, Opinion Piece, Self-Help