Neil Gaiman visited China in 2007 for the first ever, party-approved, Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. He asked a top official what had changed; in the past, these genres had been disparaged. The official said his government had realized they were good at making other people’s inventions, but they didn’t invent or imagine new things themselves.
“So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google,” Gaiman explained, “and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.”
Gaiman told this story while giving the 2013 Reading Agency annual lecture on the future of reading and libraries. The Reading Agency is a British charity that supports libraries and literacy programs, with the mission of giving everyone “an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers.” Another story Gaiman told underscores the importance of the Agency’s efforts. In New York, he once attended a talk on private prisons – one of America’s growth industries. In trying to predict the need for future facilities, prison industry officials have developed a simple algorithm based on one key factor – the percentage of 10 and 11 year olds who can’t read.
Gaiman spoke at length of fostering not just the ability to read, but the love of reading. There are no bad authors or bad books for children, he said. Adults can destroy a child’s love for reading by giving them “worthy-but-dull books…the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.” Everyone is different and will find their way to the stories they like and need.
Because written fiction, as opposed to television or movies, requires our imagination to turn the authors words into a vivid world, we return to our own world as a slightly different person, with an awareness of other points of view. Reading fosters empathy, Gaiman said, and:
“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.”
In his inspiring lecture, Gaiman talked at length of his love for libraries and how critical it was for his own development to have supportive librarians at the small library near his home while growing up – librarians who simply wanted books to be read and showed him how to use inter-library loan when he finished all the local books on vampires, ghosts, and witches. When government officials close libraries as cost saving measures, “they are stealing from the future to pay for today.”
Gaiman expressed what he believes to be our responsibilities to children and to our future. Reminding the audience that everything made by humans begins with imagination, we have a responsibility to use and foster our imagination of a better world than the one we found.
Gaiman ended with a quote from Albert Einstein. When asked how to foster intelligence in children, the great scientist said, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”