Neil Gaiman on libraries, reading, and daydreaming

Neil Gaiman, 2007, CC-BY-SA 2.0

Neil Gaiman, 2007, CC-BY-SA 2.0

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.”

19 thoughts on “Neil Gaiman on libraries, reading, and daydreaming

  1. This post has some amazing information. The idea that private prison people are using illiteracy rates of young people for planning should really be a huge wake-up call for all of us. I haven’t read Gaiman’s latest novel, but I did review and LOVE Fortunately, the Milk. So funny. I would love to see him give a talk. Thanks for this wonderful post.


    • I’ve read four of his novels and several short stories, and all are compelling and very distinct. He absolutely does not repeat himself. We read his latest, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” aloud last summer on a long day’s drive home from the Oregon coast. Made the miles fly by. I reviewed it shortly afterward – the link is in a comment above. I had bookmarked his comments and then forgotten about it until yesterday. You’re right, such a wealth of ideas and information.


  2. I’m usually the dissenting voice whenever I say that I don’t care for Gaiman’s fiction (and I will be again here I’m sure), but I love everything that you quoted from him in your post.

    I’ve talked before about how many college students I saw struggle to read a simple paragraph aloud in class, so I agree completely that people today don’t read nearly enough. (I’ll also add that not all of the classes where I heard people struggling to read things aloud were freshman level courses, there were several cases in my 300 and 400 level courses where I heard this as well.)

    I’ve never heard of the correlation between reading level of 10/11 year olds and future prison rates, but it seems like it makes sense, and it’s also frightening that it’s that reliable of a predictor.

    Lastly, while I haven’t read Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” the best Fantasy book to come out this year was “A Memory of Light,” the final book of The Wheel of Time. But that’s in large part because the book did a wonderful job of finishing a story that I started reading about 10 years ago. Either way, I think it’s far and away superior to any of the Gaiman books that I’ve read.


    • Well, one of the comments in the Gaiman lecture was that left to ourselves, we will all gravitate to our own kinds of stories, and that is as it should be. I hadn’t heard that correlation either, but it does make sense, unfortunately.


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  4. I’ve tweeted this, and will be re-blogging it too. Always good to reiterate these points by Gaiman, but will the box-tickers and local government moneybags pay any attention? Let’s hope so, ’cause I don’t want to fall into cynicism, let alone despair.


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