I was lucky enough to be invited to the Reading Agency’s annual lecture at the Barbican in London yesterday. Neil Gaiman was the guest speaker and he was every bit as erudite and inspirational as you’d expect from one of the literary icons of our generation. Casually dressed in black, there is more than a hint of ‘rock star’ about him; think Bob Dylan during his Tambourine Man years.
Not sure how I managed to make this image so ‘Andy Warhol’ – I seem to have a knack for turning good cameras bad.
Neil Gaiman on the right with Reading Agency’s CEO Miranda McKearney and crime writer Peter James
The theme of the lecture was ‘ Libraries of the Future’ but really it was all about why reading fiction matters. Gaiman began by quoting the story about how some states in the US plan their future prison needs on the reading ages of third-grade students. The theory goes that the greater the number of 8-year olds who struggle with reading, the higher the number of cells the state will need ten years down the line. Whether this is true or an Urban myth doesn’t really matter – what matters is what happens if we stop reading, if we stop the books, if we stop the promotion of them and access to them.
Britain is the only country, Gaiman continued, where the older generation is more literate than its younger generation. Now there’s a thought: if that continues, what are the implications? According to Gaiman, a less employable workforce and a gullible population that questions nothing and is easily led. That’s not appealing, is it? People need to be readers because readers know how to ‘navigate the world with words’ and how to ‘build empathy.’ Readers know, through books, that the world isn’t as grim as it sometimes feels. Books allow you to escape; they give hope; in other words, they help you deal with the crap.
I couldn’t get everything down Neil Gaiman said. I was torn between taking notes, listening to his measured, calmly-delivered but oh-so-powerful message and… well, sighing like a love-struck teenager.
Here are some of his quotes:
‘There is no such thing as a bad book for children. People who say that are talking tosh. Such a view is snobbery and foolishness.’
‘The librarians (in the library he used as an 8 year old) treated me as a reader. In other words, with respect.’
‘Councils that close libraries are stealing the future to pay for today.’
‘How can we know about the past without books? There are tales that have outlasted countries in age.’
‘Writers must not bore their readers or preach to them.’
The climax of Gaiman’s lecture was about obligations. We are all obliged, he mooted, to:
- read for pleasure – in private and in public (to see it as a norm)
- use libraries and to protest their closure so that we do not silence the voices of the past and the future
- read aloud (Yes!)
- do the voices (Yes! Yes! Teachers! Parents! Listen to the man!)
- use reading together as bonding time with our children
- use the language to say what you mean
That list of obligations is a t-towel waiting to happen or, better still, a poster that should go up in every classroom and every library and every council chamber in the land.
Gaiman concluded his lecture with ‘…thank you for listening.’ Thank you for talking, Mr Gaiman.
The Graveyard Book – my favourite Neil Gaiman title