The first thing that jumped out to me about The Well of Being: a children’s book for adults (available here) was its unique approach. That is of course a remarkable achievement in itself, considering the nearly endless expanse of existing literature. But this strange composition of personal, spiritual, and broader societal pontifications does not content itself with being unique. It aims much higher. It aims for meaning.
With such a lofty aspiration you might expect the book to resemble a grand and equally dense treatise in the spirit of Kant or Hume. Or perhaps you’re envisioning something similar to a Platonic or Talmudic dialogue. But this book is nothing of the sort. Written in the style of a children’s book, each page features an illustration and a small bit of text, usually one sentence. Like one would expect from any decent children’s book, The Well of Being elicits feelings of enchantment, wonder, playfulness, and imagination. The illustrations carry remarkable depth and bring the pages alive with a balance of beauty, whimsy, and layered communication. With a sort of otherworldly charm, these drawings reinforce the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. Perhaps most striking is that quality of the book that eludes easy explanation – nostalgia. That same sense that hovers when adults think back to their favorite childhood stories is eerily present in the pages of The Well of Being.
The Well of Being takes the reader on a mental journey not to be forgotten. One might find, as I did, that as he/she reads he/she is driven to several distinct and surprising stops along the spectrum of his/her own memories and emotions. That is, after all, one of the more fantastical effects of the reading experience. When we read we are not just a captive audience to the author – our pilot on the journey – but we are explorers of his/her very mind. We do not follow. We are made to be vicarious leaders. That is a feeling I became increasingly conscious of as I dug into The Well of Being.
This book presents an odd but easy read and flows nicely from page to page. I say odd because I could seldom read more than one page without needing to pause and think, letting the words and images marinate in my mind. It is a difficult thing to try to relate the power of this short read, but it should suffice to say that it is a provocative medium to explore the universe through an exploration of self. Or does it explore the self through an exploration of the universe? I’m not entirely sure, but either way it’s a valuable exercise in recursive exploration and discovery. (A pleasant snack of brain candy for any Douglas Hofstadter fans out there.)
I will not bombard you here with a full account of the thoughts my mind churned out while reading the book, but I will share some of the more lingering ruminations. I thought of the amazing book Where the Wild Things Are and the 2009 movie adaptation that promised and failed to bring the magic of the book to life. I thought of my immense disappointment and how in a strange way this book had made up for that broken promise. I thought of my all-time favorite book, Peter Pan, and the meta-role occupied within it by storytelling. The Well of Being: a children’s book for adults lives up to its billing by being, in many ways, the grown up heir to the legacy of Peter Pan. I could not help but be excited by the very idea of a children’s book for adults and I was reminded that more than my childhood, I really wish I could revisit my child self. In a certain way, that is what The Well of Being offers, a return to a mental space long-ago vacated and forgotten.
But I did not just think of myself and the residual affinities of my childhood. I also thought of the world and more than a few of the great, enduring questions of life. I thought about the ontology of freewill versus determinism, the conflicting merits of teleology and absurdism, the nature of love, the problem of evil, the dimensionality of time, and the genesis of change. In those thoughts the book offered little by way of conclusion but much by way of perspective.
Reading a children’s book for adults, my mind was sent back to my youth. When I was a boy I was a frequent source of frustration for my parents. I remember with such clarity when my mother would return from parent-teacher conferences shocked and annoyed. She couldn’t fathom how the poorly behaved boy that so tested her patience was the same boy about whom teachers gushed, saying what a polite little joy he was. I remember sharing my mother’s confusion. I didn’t know why it was so hard for me to be “good” at home and so easy to be “good” at school. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent wondering why it is easier for me to help my friend’s mother (not a normative statement on gender roles but a consideration of actual experiences) clear the Shabbat table than to help my own mother do the same. The answer likely comes down to a matter of context and the presumption of roles. I go to school and my friend’s Shabbat table with an entirely different mentality than I take with me home. Ultimately, these fundamental differences in how I relate to things and conduct myself are a product of my own perspective. They are not a matter of objective facts but of subjective relations. Perspective remains something of a mystery to me- how it works is both fascinating and confounding – but its power is hard to question. The Well of Being: a children’s book for adults reminds us that if we can reshape our perspective there is every reason to believe that we can partially reshape our reality.
Throughout the book, Judaism and its teachings/interpretations bear a consistent and guiding, though subtle, influence. The book expressly claims to be a teaching of the Ramchal, (Moshe Chaim Luzzatto) and in many ways it may be considered a 21st century abstraction of Messilat Yesharim, (Luzzatto’s seminal work that later became the hallmark of the Mussar movement) but the Jewish scholar that most sprung to my mind as I read The Well of Being was Sampson Raphael Hirsch.
The influence of the Ramchal cannot be ignored in the frequent references to Kabbalah and the Hassidic treatment of symbolism. But the willingness to treat scripture symbolically was never exclusive to Jewish mystics and it is, in fact, a prominent principle of the Hirschian school of thought. On top of that, the Hassidic view that the law and lore of Judaism play out within each individual’s soul as much as any national or historical stage is in a way echoed by Hirsch. The responsibility of “Man and Israelite” represents a central tenet in Hirsch’s weltanschauung. This responsibility is elucidated by two corollary commandments: “You will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation” and “I have submitted you as the people’s covenant, as a light unto the nations“. (Exodus 19:6 and Isaiah 42:6) According to Hirsch, without first turning the focus within and becoming a nation of priests, we can never hope to be a light unto the nations. In this way, the philosophy of taking an external edification/narrative and first internalizing it is common to The Well of Being, the Ramchal, and Sampson Raphael Hirsch.
In line with all of this, The Well of Being: a children’s book for adults may be called a bridge. It bridges the chasm that divides the id and the ego, the self and the other, the child and the adult, the individual and the collective, the internal revelation and the external revelation, and perhaps most profoundly, the spiritual and the material. This, I believe, is the book’s true tribute to the Ramchal, a man who was said to have married many seemingly opposing qualities. The Ramchal the secular poet and the religious scholar; the Ramchal the mystic and the rationalist; the Ramchal the exiled and the extolled; the Ramchal the holy and the humbled. The Well of Being does not shy away from nuance and it wholeheartedly embraces the dialectic in its pursuit of well-being.
Similarly, the underlying connectedness of all things plays a prominent role. It is not for nothing that Sampson Raphael Hirsch defines God, the wellspring of everything, as the “harmonizer of opposites”. This transduality is a recurring subtext throughout the story. Even more than that though, I think what shines through the book most is the call for lovingkindness (another staple of the Hirschian school) – first to one’s self, then to others, then to the whole of the universe.
This book has layers upon layers and blends an intelligent and informed understanding of the world around us with a sort of life philosophy that at once accommodates reality’s gravity and levity. The Well of Being is a deeply personal journey into life that bears universal truth. Explored through the innocent and utterly genuine lens of our inner child, The Well of Being: a children’s book for adults is a triumph of both art and storytelling. Like the best of children’s books, the content is neither diluted nor limited in ambition, but manages to remain accessible nonetheless.
Even now, I am mesmerized by the novelty and authenticity of this book. The author invented an entirely new genre in adult children’s books and It is intoxicating. I am no doubt a departure from the typical reader, a bit of an oddball with eccentric tastes and disparate interests. But I am sure that those of you who are similarly bizarre, along with those that are not, will love The Well of Being. To put it simply, this book is music for your brain. The Well of Being: a children’s book for adults will make you laugh, cry, and think deliberately. Definitely worth the read.
(For anyone interested, a video teaser for the book was produced by the author and is available here.)