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.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.
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.
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.