One of Britain’s most respected and best-loved authors worldwide, Neil Gaiman, spoke last night on literacy and libraries at the second Reading Agency lecture in London, on behalf of this UK charity “with a mission to inspire more people to read more,” especially in partnership with libraries. And he drew direct correlations between literacy, reading habits and crime levels, and warned of the folly of closing libraries for short-term budgetary ends.
Much of Gaiman’s lecture, though, was devoted to encouraging the habit and love of reading. “I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books,” he warned. “It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. 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 21st century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.”
Gaiman referenced data from the U.S. prisons system to drive home just how socially significant the effects could be. “The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based about asking what percentage of ten- and eleven-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.”
And on the contribution of libraries to the encouragement of reading, he said: “I worry that here in the 21st Century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a word in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to fundamentally miss the point. I think it has to do with nature of information … ‘Libraries are the gates to the future … we see local authorities seeing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are, quite literally, stealing from the future to pay for today.”
(Bear in mind that the whole library budget cuts issue in the UK arises from the disastrous effects of the Global Financial Crisis and the sovereign debt crisis on central and local government finances. Essentially, UK authorities are undermining the country’s future to pay for fixing their mistakes.)
“We have an obligation to support libraries: To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries,” Gaiman concluded. “If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are cutting off the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.”