Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods and Coraline, shares his thoughts on Why We Read and What Books Do for the Human Experience
Neil Gaiman, author of such landmark works as American Gods, Good Omens (co-authored with Terry Pratchett), Coraline, and The Sandman, is one of the most celebrated authors currently working. Beloved by generations and the winner of numerous awards for his fiction, Gaimain is a master of imaginative storytelling.
A writer with a deep and passionate love for the potential of reading to enrich one's life, Gaiman wrote a beautiful piece titled “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.”
Originally delivered as a lecture for The Reading Agency, an English charity devoted to giving kids from all backgrounds an equal chance at the good life by fostering an early love of reading, the speech was later included in The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction.
"Once in New York, 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, fifteen years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based about asking what percentage of ten- and eleven-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure."
Reading is absolutely vital. An undeveloped mind is more vulnerable, more susceptable to abuse, and more in danger of exploitation. A young mind who does get exposure to reading is more likely to end up with limited amount of possibilities in their lives.
"I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was R. L. Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.
It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness.
There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to someone encountering it for the first time. You don’t discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is the gateway drug to other books you may prefer them to read. And not everyone has the same taste as you.
Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the twenty- first-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and, worse, unpleasant."
"I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in my summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s library I began on the adult books.
They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on interlibrary loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and they would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader — nothing less, nothing more — which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.
Libraries are about Freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information."
Gaiman makes a great point about the library as a truly open and available resource for an enquiring mind to develop and to sharpen itslef on the whetstone of books. Unfortunately, libraries are in trouble. 350 libraries have closed in the past six years, and another 111 are set to shut their doors. Almost 350 libraries have been shut in the last six years, with nearly 8,000 jobs lost – a quarter of the workforce, figures reveal. It is imperative to bring young people to libraries so they can learn to value and appreciate them.
"We need libraries. We need books. We need literate citizens.
I do not care — I do not believe it matters — whether these books are paper or digital, whether you are reading on a scroll or scrolling on a screen. The content is the important thing.
But a book is also the content, and that’s important.
Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told."
Books are good for the mind. As Tyrion Lannister said, "the needs books like a sword needs a whetstone." Reading is linked to memory, information retension, lower levels of stress, and better short term memories. In an age where a Google search will give you a quick soundbite of an answer, it's very easy for bad information to slip in to most people's social media streams. Taking the time to dig in and research issues that matter to you will give you more depth of information going forward. Unfortunately most people don't do that. It's generally understood that the average American reads 12 books a year, with a quarter of Americans not reading at all.
For more information on how you can help literary efforts in your community, the fine folks at Chronicle Books have put together a list of literary charities to check out.