A month ago yesterday, Neil Gaiman gave a lecture at the Reading Agency in London. Yesterday, I gave his speech to my AP Language and Composition students to read. I had two motivations for doing so:
1) They are learning to analyze argument, and Gaiman’s argument is so overtly stated it is a great place to start, and
2) They need the added push to help them understand the importance of reading fiction in helping them become productive and literate members of society.
I could summarize Gaiman’s lecture (published a day later by The Guardian), but that would be redundant in this age of digital access, especially when I’ve provided a link. What I would like to do instead is to explain why I think he’s right, and how I know for sure that he is.
First, he calls the need for libraries, reading, and daydreaming “a matter of common humanity.” Well, yes, because reading teaches us “lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over.” That, to me, is what rescuing the humanities is all about, and that is the main reason why I think he is right. Of course it helps that I am an English teacher and I love to read already, and I love it when prolific, popular writers such as Gaiman make an “impassioned plea” for reading, and when that plea subsequently goes somewhat viral on social media outlets like Facebook. It also helps when he compares a book to a shark to help explain the endurance of books. Best simile I’ve read in a long time.
Now to why I know he’s right. I know he’s right because he mentions the alarming growth of the private prison industry in the United States, and the connection between illiteracy and prison populations. What was most startling about him relating this anecdote is that I learned there is now an algorithm used to determine future prison needs…using the percentage of 10 and 11 year olds that can’t read. Scary, but true. You can read more about it here. I know even more so because I teach the type of students he was referring to, and I see the truth of this alarming indictment in my classroom every day. As part of the program in my school, we have a set time in every Language Arts Classroom to read – usually 30 minutes out of a 100 minute class period. The students who read for pleasure – and it’s nearly always fiction – do better in my class than students who, in their words, “hate reading.”
I also know he’s right because for time immemorial, literature – accessed most often through libraries – has been about access to “freedom of ideas, freedom of communication…access to information” Not only that, but libraries are a foundation for education, which as he points out is ongoing; it doesn’t end when the day at school or university ends. What I thought of as I read this particular portion of his speech was that even within literature itself, specifically futuristic dystopian literature, books are always in short supply. In Fahrenheit 451 they were burned; in Brave New World they didn’t exist, except for on the “savage” reservation; in 1984 they were banned, or rewritten to serve the purpose of the party; in V for Vendetta (the movie, forgive me for not having read the graphic novel) books were outlawed; more recently, in contemporary young adult dystopian literature, books – and in some cases even writing – are taboo. As I was reading fiction the other day (as I often do, because I like to escape my crazy hectic days even for just a few minutes at night), I came across a quote in Veronica Roth’s finale to the Divergent series that struck home, and seemed eerily relevant to Gaiman’s point:
…a system that relies on the uneducated to do their dirty work without giving them a way to rise is hardly fair.
Hasn’t this been the case throughout history? Access to information of all types has been a means of education, of upward social mobility, of changing our paths, of grabbing our bootstraps, let’s say, and taking off for new frontiers. Or, in some cases, of being able to escape from a prison of poverty and lack of education to find a way out.
So, Gaiman is right. Libraries, reading, and daydreaming all give an escape – a good one – that provides us with “skills and knowledge and tools that [we] can use to escape for real.” Let’s hope we remember our dependence on the humanities for progress, as well as freedom, and continue to provide that access to knowledge for the future generations.