A thoughtful poster on MobileRead.com alerted me to the recording and full transcript of the 25-minute lecture delivered by Neil Gaiman at the Barbican Centre in London as the Reading Agency’s second annual lecture. You can, and should, read or listen to the entire speech there. But I’m isolating a few especially important statements, with context where necessary, to help drive home the really key messages.

“Reading for pleasure is one of the most important things one can do,” Gaiman says at the start of his lecture. Quite appropriate in a country where 35 percent of Brits, and 42 percent of British men, do not read regularly. And yet, despite the obvious temptation to talk about literacy and a love of reading as an economic boon or a stimulant to living standards, Gaiman does not emphasize the economy. He talks about society.

Building on the remark I already cited in TeleRead that youthful literacy and reading for pleasure have a direct inverse correlation to the size of the prison population, Gaiman notes that this is not just down to social level, but also to empathy. When reading, he says, “you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes … Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.”

And all of the above should counsel against dismissing fiction as escapism. “As J. R. R. Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers,” Gaiman says. And soon after: “Libraries are about Freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education.”

Do we see a pattern emerging here? I don’t mean to imply that the current British government’s policy of letting libraries wither on the vine is a conspiracy to de-educate its people and keep them in jail. But effectively, this policy and the attitudes that pair with it do tend to imprison them within their social stratum. And as Gaiman also points out, that can go directly to jail. A real jail.

And Gaiman does allude directly to the OECD study that found that England is the:  “only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account … Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are.”

This was especially a speech for Britain, which Gaiman says he delivers “even more biased as a British Citizen.” It’s hard to imagine too many other developed countries – except those as hobbled by bad education, ignorance, and brutish worship of narrow-minded pragmatism – where a great and popular writer would have to make such a long and passionate defense of the mere value of imagination and fantasy. But it’s definitely a message that Britain needs to hear.

Contrast with the values and attitudes of someone like Noel Gallagher of Oasis: “Novels are just a waste of f***ing time. I can’t suspend belief in reality… I just end up thinking, ‘This isn’t f***ing true.'” I doubt that Neil Gaiman set out to put himself “a tiny little bit above” Noel Gallagher, as Gallagher clearly is anxious about. But Gallagher definitely represents many of that 42 percent of English men who don’t read books for pleasure. It would be great to have a country where a speech like Gaiman’s isn’t even necessary. As it is, he had better keep repeating it, again and again, until the message gets home.

“We have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places,” Gaiman says. “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.”

You’ve seen the alternative. Now go live up to that obligation.


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