"Well meaning adults can easily destroy a child's love of reading - do not discourage children from reading because you feel they're reading the wrong thing. There is no such thing as the wrong thing to be reading and no bad fiction for kids." - Neil Gaiman
(Above, Neil Gaiman with Miranda McKearney before the lecture. Photo by Robin Mayes.)
On 14 October at the Barbican, the internationally acclaimed author Neil Gaiman gave our second annual Reading Agency lecture. We initiated the lecture in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries as we explore how to create a reading culture in a radically changed 21st century landscape.
Neil Gaiman delivered the lecture in the company of leading figures from libraries, the arts, education, government and the literary world. Plus ambassadors and authors championing our work including David Nicholls, Adele Parks, Peter James, Joanna Trollope, Jeanette Winterson, Cressida Cowell, Charlie Higson, Patrick Ness, Polly Samson, and India Knight. Celebrated crime author Peter James also announced our author fund, a new social responsibility initiative which allows authors to help increase the impact of our reading programmes with libraries.
Miranda McKearney OBE, Founding Director of The Reading Agency said: "Tonight is part of an urgent debate about how to build a nation of readers and library users. Who better than the extraordinary Neil Gaiman to help us think through new solutions to the fact that for a wealthy country, with free education, we have a shocking literacy problem?"
Extracts from Neil's lecture
Neil Gaiman delivered an impassioned lecture in support of the future of reading and libraries focusing particularly on children and young people.
The importance of reading for pleasure
He began by outlining the importance of reading for pleasure and libraries: "I'm going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I'm going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things." (Left, Neil Gaiman giving the lecture. Photo by Robin Mayes.)
He then spoke about 'the power of fiction to transform our understanding of the world and turn us into citizens': "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 those books and letting them read them."
He cited research by America's private prison industry, showing why reading fiction is so important: "I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons - a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth - how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based about asking what percentage of ten and eleven year olds couldn't read. And certainly couldn't read for pleasure. It's not one to one: you can't say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations. And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction."
"The gateway drug to reading"
Neil called fiction 'the gateway drug to reading' and asked for us not to "discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is the gateway drug to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you." (Left, Neil Gaiman with Peter James and Miranda McKearney. Photo by Robin Mayes.)
Challenging the current emphasis in some countries on reading lists and set texts, he spoke about the importance of validating all reading for children: "I don't think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children's books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I've seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was R. L Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy. It's tosh. It's snobbery and it's foolishness."
"Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child's love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st century equivalents of Victorian "improving" literature. You'll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant."
People misunderstand what libraries are
He made an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are for in the 21st century saying: "I worry that here in the 21st Century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a word in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to fundamentally miss the point. I think it has to do with nature of information." (Above, Neil Gaiman with Liz Cleaver, Miranda McKearney and young Reading Activists. Photo by Robin Mayes.)
He said that 'Libraries are the gates to the future' and that "we see local authorities seeing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are, quite literally, stealing from the future to pay for today".
He reminded the audience that more children are using libraries than ever before: "Libraries are places that people go for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before - books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, a place that you can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is all online, and librarians are people who can help you navigate that world."
Obligations to support reading for pleasure
He then went on to outline 'our obligations as readers, writers and citizens' to support reading for pleasure in our children and libraries and he spoke about library cuts: "We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are cutting off the voices of the past and you are damaging the future."
And he spoke about his obligation as a writer not to 'turn children away from reading': "We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and turn children away from reading and from books, we've lessened our own future and diminished theirs."
At the lecture young Reading Activists asked lecture guests what they'd like to see in their 'library of the future'. You can join this activity via twitter or by emailing us what you'd like to see in future libraries.
We welcome contact from media professionals. We can provide expert comment and interviewees on the importance of reading and libraries. For all media enquiries please contact our communications agency, FMCM or call 0207 405 7422