Yesterday, I read the text form of Neil Gaiman’s lecture at the annual Reading Agency lecture. I’ve found it hard to write recently. I’ve even found it hard to read, to keep my concentration on reading. I’ve read a few books this year that have spoken to me as a person and have set my imagination on fire, but I find myself taking stock this month of what it is that I’m aiming for, what it is that I’m passionate about. As a commissioning editor for Deaf Unity, I find myself thinking about how important information and stories are; how sharing our voices and stories can give other people courage to share theirs and to follow their own paths in life.
This is why Neil Gaiman’s lecture struck a chord with me – as people who blog, write, read and consume information, we need to recognise the power of words in our society. Sometimes people say that actions speak louder than words. Yet words and actions are bound together – yes, people can say one thing and do another, but it is by communication, literacy and spreading information that ideas, dreams and thoughts become things.
Why does this lecture feel so important? It is a quiet call to action in many ways – to save our libraries, to understand how reading for pleasure raises people up, how important it is that we encourage literacy within society.
I’ve always been a reader. I was lucky enough to have parents that loved to read to myself and my sister, even when we were diagnosed deaf, they kept reading to us and we kept reading. I was hungry for stories – not just from books, but from good movies and for the reasons behind things. Humans have told stories from the beginning of time, and stories are in our DNA. A good story – an epic classic, an incredible life story, your Grandmother’s memories, your favourite film – lodges itself in your heart and reminds you that there are things worth fighting for and that people can get through things.
The best stories are the ones that you carry with you through your life, with all its sorrows and happiness. Everyone has their own preferences. This is why I don’t sniff at anyone’s choice of reading matter, even if I disagree that it’s a good story/good writing. I mean, some of my choices of fiction are the kind of thing that some people roll their eyes at (I roll my eyes at them, because after all, they’re missing out of course..).
It’s true that reading one book, and then another, is a gateway towards reading everything. I’m not as choosy as some – yes I have a preference for weird and wonderful supernatural tales, but I also love to read things that are more straightforward. I make it a habit to read things out of my usual genres because I feel that the more writing you are exposed to, the more you learn about writing, and about the tools used in different genres. I’m also making it a habit to read more independent/self published fiction by authors I follow on Twitter, such as Ksenia Anske, who has published her Siren Suicides trilogy this year.
I haven’t read half as many classics as some people have. I have a real thing for Jane Austen because she has a fantastic ironic wit and her social observations shine off the page. I’ve read Great Expectations and attempted Oliver Twist but I gave up. And here it is – there’s no shame in giving up reading a book if it just doesn’t grab you. There are other books out there to read. There are gaps in my ‘classics’ and ‘literary fiction’ education. The joy of reading and your own reading journey is that you make your own way through things. So what if you haven’t read Hemingway (I haven’t) or Hunter S. Thompson (nope, not yet anyway)? You might make your way there – you might not. That’s okay, because there are millions of books and authors out there to read.
I agree with Gaiman (incidentally one of my recently discovered favourite authors – I read Neverwhere in 2009 and haven’t looked back) that after a post-literacy world was declared a few years back, we now need literacy, words and information more than ever. The internet means that more information than ever before is available at our fingertips – and there are millions of blogs and writers out there doing their thing. That points to how powerful the written word is, and how essential it is.
Words and language allow us to know what is happening around us, to the world, in politics, in our lives, and help us make sense of what is happening within us. Language (spoken, gestured or written), gives us the means to articulate who we are and what we feel. As a deaf person, I know the value of language and understanding each other. Language is such a fraught topic within the Deaf community – because the power of communication is not taken for granted, and communication is often taken for granted by hearing people and society.
Children need to be given and to take the gift of reading – and discover the stories that they love the most. They might not enjoy Harry Potter, they might prefer something completely different. I loved making that journey towards books that I fell in love with. I’m still making that journey, because I know that there are amazing books out there yet to be discovered. The magic of being a child discovering their favourite stories – sometimes I wish I was still there but there is still magic to be found.
Without stories, without reading, children don’t necessarily learn the nuances and difficulties there are to be faced in life – and how they can push through them. Maybe reading those stories rubs off on us and gives us a bit more resilience, as well as empathy for others and a greater understanding of the struggles of others. When reading (and writing), we connect with others, have a glimpse outside our own self-centred lives, and also learn more about ourselves in the process.
I’ve written about escapism in the past too. How important it is to have that place – and for me that has always been through books. Yes, you can escape through watching films or playing a video-game or going for a walk; but reading is something else. What else engages the mind, the heart and the imagination half as much as reading? It’s a wondrous thing – to just pick up a book or your Kindle and be transported, standing still. You travel without moving. Characters come alive in your brain. I don’t think anyone can truly describe what imagination is – it’s a film in your brain, imagined up by you, just by seeing words on a page. It is being still but leaping from word to word.
Words have power behind them when governments seek to silence. When writing, tweeting, blogging or publishing something out of kilter with the party line is dangerous. We have so much freedom in the UK, and sometimes that gets taken for granted – and this is good, because its a sign of freedom of information. We are allowed to question our government and keep them accountable.
Where there isn’t freedom, libraries, books, reading and access to a wide channel of information is crucially important. This is why we should be proud of and protect places where people can find information and nurture the wonder of discovering new ideas and new worlds. We should be proud of our libraries and bookshops. We should tell stories.
‘Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.’ – Neil Gaiman.