Reading & Reacting: Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

Photo Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman – courtesy of The Guardian Photograph: Robin Mayes

By Neil Gaiman @ The Guardian

Since it is important to tell people what side they are on and why, as Neil Gaiman opens, let me begin with I am love this excerpted lecture for more reasons than I may be able to include in a blogpost.

For one I am a high school English teacher. Yet, I wasn’t always a high school. It took many years for me to find my way to spending my days devoted to teaching youth how to read and write better when they leave my class than they were when they entered. Prior to being a teacher, I was many things. Mostly I was and continue to be a voracious reader. I am also a pretty big Neil Gaiman fan.

After a few disclosures, Gaiman serves up a startling opener for why reading is important. If ever anyone needed a better reason to fight the urge to kill a child’s love of reading or commit what Kelly Gallagher has coined as “readicide,” this auspicious beginning is it.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

Yet Gaiman is just getting started. He begins articulating reason after reason why reading is not just important but imperative, even connecting it to nothing more than our humanity.

He rightly proclaims, “Literate people read fiction.” Despite this piece being delivered in his native England, Gaiman is an American resident. Somehow this point may be getting muddled where he currently lives, Stateside. As the Common Core State Standards have decidedly placed an emphasis on non-fiction, which will likely happen at the expense of fiction. Yet more than Gaiman have been revealing the potential error that may reign. However, few state it with quite the cleverness and candor as this.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading…

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

That second part is even being backed up by science now, as I cited last week. Wisdom should be enough to validate these two points Gaiman makes, but some people believe nothing unless they can validate scientifically. Then there are those ready to dismiss even science. Yet, only a fool would deny these two points.

Gaiman is so gifted as a writer and thinker, it is hard not be spellbound by his craft and cleverness. He is capable of commanding extraordinary beauty at times. He certainly has captured some beauty when he takes on those who foolishly dismiss fiction as escapist.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

This has certainly proven the case for me and I dare say many others. It was that way for Gaiman himself, as he articulates a childhood amidst the bookshelves of his local library as a boy. In fact, that too is a beautiful bit, a worthy example of literacy narrative that is powerful and resonant.

Gaiman defends libraries too and daydreaming with equal beauty, boldness, and humor. This is the kind of piece that everyone should read, but especially educators of any kind. As he explained, “We have a responsibility to the future,” which means our children and everyone’s children. Teachers especially must instill a love of reading. Then maybe, just maybe, those children might one day write too, truly changing the world, even if it is only their own.

Image: iPad

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