Oct 16, 2013

Neil Gaiman on Libraries, Reading and Escape

Arthur Rackham illustration for Goblin Market.
And while we're on the subject, I'd like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it's a bad thing. As if "escapist" fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn't you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with (and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.
I usually save quote posts for tumblr, but this is too good not to post here. It’s also very relevant to a conversation I was having with a friend just this morning about how dismissing the power stories have to bring us comfort is an immensely privileged position. Sometimes having “a place to go where you are in control” and “are with people you want to be with” is the one thing that keeps you going day after day.

This is only one among many possible highlights — the whole of Neil Gaiman’s Reading Agency lecture is very much worth reading. The only thing I’d say is that I’d have liked the bit about lack of literacy skills being correlated with criminality to have been unpacked further. If I read it generously, I can see that the argument the study puts forward goes illiteracy > lack of opportunities > social exclusion > desperate circumstances that cause people to fall into crime; and not “people with low literacy skills inevitably become unethical monsters along the lines of HG Wells’ Morlocks who then turn to crime”. However, the absurdity of the latter doesn’t make it impossible for that to be some people’s takeaway, and as I’ve bumblingly attempted to explain in the past, I’m wary of the facile dehumanisation of those who don’t or won’t read for whatever reasons.

(Obviously a whole other argument could be made about the kind of crimes we tend to punish the most severely, and why social inequality also means that the crimes of the wealthy, literate and well-connected are less likely to land them in prison.)

Anyway: libraries and books matter and all in all this is an excellent reminder of the reasons why.

ETA: A full version of the lecture is now up at the Reading Agency's website.


  1. There's a great quote from Mark Twain, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” I've always loved that because who in their right mind would give up reading if they had the ability to? It is the key that opens the door to knowledge.

  2. Great post, Ana! I love that speech by Gaiman too.

  3. It was a little bit hard for me to get past his initial and very casual slur on Americans, with their prisons and illiteracy. How could they value libraries or free public education or anything?

  4. Melissa: I treasure that about reading so much. I think there are many complicated reasons why people give it up, but I don't want to live in a world where lack of access to books and other written material due to increasing library closures is one of them.

    Tasha: He has a huge profile and people generally respect him, so fingers crossed that him drawing attention to all these things we know to be true will make a difference.

    Jeanne: American libraries are amazing. I know I've never actually been across the pond (yet), but just from what I see online, I'm in awe of what you guys have.

  5. Reading the opening again, I wonder if his allusion to being biased as a British citizen has to do with libraries being statutory over here? (Though there are huge debates about what that means in practical terms, because "effective and comprehensive service" are not exactly clear terms). I don't actually know if there's a legal duty for authorities to provide a library service in the US, but in any case, what I said above about your amazing libraries stands. And here school libraries are NOT statutory, which is just absurd beyond words.

  6. I know it's not true in ALL communities, but I've seen amazing things in regards to libraries, from my little itty bitty redneck logging town raising grassroots funds for a new library (this for a town with a population of 3000), to my current city with its incredible library which is clearly used as a huge resource by a large part of the community. There is a LINE of people in the morning, waiting for the door to open. Incredible. Libraries are incredibly valuable, enriching, and save the lives (sometimes literally) of many people, in America and worldwide. So thankful to always have lived in communities that value them!

  7. Thanks for the link! I never get tired of reading about how awesome libraries are. My mom is a librarian, and it literally does not compute for me that there are people who think her job is obsolete. So strange.

  8. I thought this was interesting in the context of some of his other comments about what makes 'appropriate' children's literature (he basically said let children read what they want, they'll naturally pick the books that are right for them, don't tell them to not read genre X or style Y).

    That why I thought it was so powerful, your comment about being anti-escapist is a position of privilege. I feel like the problem with our modern (and very well-intentioned!) attempts to get kids to read are dangerous in this respect: the suggestion (particularly to parents, but to kids, too) is that reading is important because it means you'll succeed in school, or it means it will raise your test scores, or it means you will be able to have a better career someday, etc, etc, etc. That its about practical opportunity. But reading, at its best, is more than this, and if we just tell kids 'eat your vegetables and read books', as it were, they will never be able to see books as an ally - always they are a necessary evil, you know? And the people who NEED that ally the most are often those who DON'T have someone showing them what an ally it can be.

  9. Libraries, books, and reading are under threat in the US as they are here in Canada, and over there in the UK. "Writing" and 'reading' are used for business, for communication, for a purpose. To read for pleasure, for deepening our knowledge of the world around us through fiction, is still seen as a privilege, not a necessity. And it's dangerous. Because each reader learns about how to discern for themselves what is true, through reading, which leads to thinking and considering other points of view, which Gaiman says in his speech. You and I know, and he knows, Ana, that reading is critical to making a way in the world. And so in countries where the economics is unstable (or perceived by the leaders that way), or when the population is to be controlled in some way, what's the first thing to go? The arts. Libraries. The places people go to find their way in the world. I think it is a much-needed speech he has given. I hope the town councils everywhere are listening.

    I wish the right to have a library in every community would be enshrined in the charter of rights of every country.

    The one good thing is that storytelling is part of human nature, and one way or another, the stories get told. It would be nice if it were enshrined, so we could celebrate reading every year, and not have to fight for it.


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