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“In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” A mystic, a 20th-century religious intellectual, a social change agent, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., famously saying afterwards that he felt his legs were praying. Heschel’s poetic theological writings are still read and widely studied today. His faith was as much about “radical amazement” as it was about certainty. And he embodied the passionate social engagement of the prophets, drawing on wisdom at once provocative and nourishing.

In the 1960s, Nikki Giovanni was a revolutionary poet of the Black Arts Movement that nourished civil rights. She had a famous dialogue with James Baldwin in Paris in 1971. As a professor at Virginia Tech, she brought beauty and courage by the way of poetry after the shooting there. Today, she is a self-proclaimed space freak and a delighted elder — an adored voice to hip-hop artists and the new forms of social change this generation is creating.

The moral life, Marie Howe says, is lived out in what we say as much as what we do. She became known for her poetry collection What the Living Do, about her brother’s death at 28 from AIDS. Now she has a new book, Magdalene. Poetry is her exuberant and open-hearted way into the words and the silences we live by. She works and plays with a Catholic upbringing, the universal drama of family, the ordinary rituals that sustain us — and how language, again and again, has a power to save us.

Jean Berko Gleason is a living legend in the field of psycholinguistics — how language emerges, and what it tells us about how we think and who we are. She has helped to illustrate the remarkable ordinary human capacity to begin to speak, and she’s continued to break new ground in exploring what this may teach us about adults as about the children we’re raising. We keep learning about the human gift, as she puts it, to be conscious of ourselves and to comment on that. For her, the exploration of language is a frontier every bit as important and thrilling as exploring outer space or the deep sea.

The philosopher Simone Weil defined prayer as “absolutely unmixed attention.” The artist Ann Hamilton embodies this notion in her sweeping works of art that bring all the senses together. She uses her hands to create installations that are both visually astounding and surprisingly intimate, and meet a longing many of us share, as she puts it, to be alone together.

Fairy tales don’t only belong to the domain of childhood. Their overt themes are threaded throughout hit TV series like Game of Thrones and True Blood, Grimm and Once Upon a Time. These stories survive, says Maria Tatar, by adapting across cultures and history. They are carriers of the plots we endlessly re-work in the narratives of our lives — helping us work through things like fear and hope.

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