In the modern digital age the choice of entertainment has never been more overwhelming. The closure of book shops is indicative of the publishing industry’s state of flux. The good old-fashioned paper book has gone digital, as well as having to compete with more visual forms of entertainment; like 3D films, TV, computer games and social media.
So has reading really had its day? Is it a bygone pastime of previous generations? And if not what is the value in reading? How is it good for you?
As Neil Gaiman says, ‘words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the words slip onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading.’
I’m still a huge fan of the paper book, I must be an old soul or just an old fart but I still haven’t even succumbed to the Kindle. There’s something so tactile and comforting about paper, the visual delight of the sleeve design and the smell of the pages, the soft thud as the book drops onto my face when I fall asleep. Plus it is conveniently water and sand and shatter resistant. Gaiman doesn’t believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens. ‘As Douglas Adam once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough..they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them.’
Why read for pleasure?
Reading for pleasure invokes the imagination. Albert Einstein understood the value of reading for pleasure and imagining. He was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was “If you want your children to be intelligent.” He said, “read them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
Fairytales require imagination. And what evokes the imagination? Daydreaming. Author, Dr Sue Woolfe told me once that daydreamers are often creative people. Neil Gaiman talks about the importance of the imagination. Reading fiction for pleasure, he says, is one of the most important things one can do. I’ve always believed this. From being a small child I refused to leave the house without a book, pad and pen. I even used to write on the walls, such was my compulsion to write! So thank you Neil, for easing my guilt about frittering hours and weekends away, curled up with a book, rather than doing something more constructive, like work. As Jorge Luis Borges said, ‘I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.’
See for the writer, reading is work, it’s part of the profession, and it’s an absolute pleasure at the same time. Gaiman says ‘I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and public places. 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.’
Imagination can provide inspiration, insight and change. ‘It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.’
Fiction builds empathy. Empathy for other people, empathy for difference, it allows us to become less self obsessed and individualistic. Fiction opens up a whole new world and allows the reader to see the world through new eyes, offering the possibility of change.
Yes fiction is a form of escapism, as is any form of entertainment that distracts you from your own world and takes you into another. But why is escapism a bad thing? ‘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, 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 more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour..Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.’
The Value of Literacy
The story Gaiman told about the correlation between literacy and crime is poignant. He listened to a talk in New York about the building of private prisons. Upon planning the future growth of prisons they calculated how many cells they were going to need in 15 years based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure. You can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But the correlations are very real. Literate people read fiction. Gaiman says ‘The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to books, and letting them read them.
Literacy is more important than ever. In a world of information overload; on the web, text and email, we need to be comfortable with reading, to understand and navigate information, as global citizens.