Neil Gaiman, the unbelievably talented writer, gave a moving lecture on reading, imagination, literature, and libraries in London just a few days ago. His words were so eloquent and so on point that there truly is not a better way to deliver the message than the manner in which he did.
He opened up his speech with a rather startling reality: “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.”
Now, this may seem rather blunt. A statistic like this surely has some wiggle-room–and it does. But, we must recognize that everything starts off as a child, whether good or bad, and reading is a key to development. This is the point Gaiman is trying to make: reading holds the key to growth in every possible way.
He makes the point that literate people are more likely to do good things with their lives, and in turn, literate people read fiction. The reasoning is this: children learn to love to read when they are very young and are following the guidance of those around them. He (and I) encourage parents to read to their kids. Read anything and everything that engages their children! There is no such thing as a “bad book.” Because, the more a child reads, the more s/he will explore the world of literature. They will become more comfortable and expand their interests. Our job, as adults, is to support and foster that passion from the very beginning with an open mind.
Gaiman points out the powers of fiction, no matter what format: “Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.” This is an incredibly wonderful way of examining fiction and the way it can affect individuals for the better. Reading opens up our thoughts and it breaks through the limits that reality sometimes creates. It shows the endless possibilities and the joys upon achieving them. To put it simply, fiction EQUALS empowerment.
And libraries are one gateway to the empowerment. “Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before – books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.” Gaiman recognizes the immense importance of libraries and why these institutions need to remain standing and continue gaining strength and support. Libraries serve as an equalizer. They give a means to people without and they help those who do go further.
And now, we come to the end of his wonderfully moving lecture, where his point truly hits home: “Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.” This is a rather simple example in nature, but it is one that certainly reverberates. Imagination is something that shouldn’t be titled ‘childish’ and a ‘waste of time.’ Imagination is how this world we live in has advanced so much. Now, more than ever before, people are thinking of new ways to do things–to do it faster, better, more efficient. How could this be accomplished without imagination? And, if there was nothing to support that imagination? Let children read and explore. Let them imagine. Let them never stop believing in something that is only just a possibility, because one day, they may make it a reality.
I want to leave you with Gaiman’s closing words: “Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. ‘If you want your children to be intelligent,’ he said, ‘read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’ He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.”