Friday, August 5, 2016

Gaiman: Why We Read

Courtesy of Maria Popova's indispensable website Brain Pickings comes a look into one of author Neil Gaiman's awesomely uplifting essays, this one originally delivered at The Reading Agency, an English charity devoted to developing young readers (you can find the full essay in  The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction ).

The riches of this essay are considerable. On the business of making sure that children are reading the "right" book:

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.

Another critical function of reading that Gaiman underlines. is the ability of reading to foster empathy, that most critical of human abilities.

When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

Gaiman also supports the ability of reading as a means of envisioning other worlds-- and therefor becoming dissatisfied with this one, with building visions of the world we would like to inhabit.

But I take the most inspiration and resolve from Gaiman's list of obligations. I am posting this here for you to see, Reader, but also so that I can come back to it again and again for myself.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. We have an obligation to use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

We writers — and especially writers for children, but all writers — have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were — to understand that truth is not in what happens but in what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading.

There's more, and I encourage you to go read it. It's reminder of what our obligations are as teachers, about the enormous power of reading in general and reading fiction in particular, a reminder (if we need one) that reading is such a vaster, richer, more human experience than the cramped narrow supposed-skill-based version that is currently pushed on us in education. The powers that be want us to make students study a small rock when what we owe them is a look at the Grand Canyon.


  1. I had never thought about movies and books being different as far as feeling empathy. I think you can also feel empathy for characters in movies, but to me, it's more difficult. Certainly reading fiction that had psychological truths helped me to understand other people and be able to see myself in their shoes.

    I also like the point about the obligation to write "true things" (not facts, but "who we are"). Cervantes said the same.

  2. "We have an obligation to support libraries..." and support them he does. In 2011 I believe we teacher librarians in Los Angeles were in danger of losing our jobs because we didn't teach! (This was a Deasy reformster tactic to get rid of teachers but it has stayed on since). Hector Tobar wrote a beautiful article about our treatment in an interrogation beyond belief. Gaiman tweeted the story to his 50,000 followers which caused the LA Times leaders to ask Tobar for a follow up. He saved our jobs!! Thank you for sharing this Peter!! Gaiman is most eloquent in expressing the need for pubic education and to get rid of privatization. He seems to have a genius for expressing the important values in life.