authorial freedom, Book Review, Bootsy Barker Bites, Coffee With Jammer, Coraline, Democracy, Education, Essay, Freedom, freedom of information, imagination, Individual Will, Joshua Jammer Smith, Libraries, Library, Literature, Neil Gaiman, Non-Fiction, Political Apathy, Politics, Sandman, Speech, Stranger Things, The Graveyard Book, The Tragical comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch, The View From the Cheap Seats, Where the Wild Things Are, Why Libraries Matter, Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming, Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013, Writing
It’s not just because I want to work at a library. It’s because I hate Neil Gaiman. I hate the man because he is everything that I want to be. Not just an accomplished author with a few books under my belt, but a writer who has really altered the creative landscape for being nothing else but what they truly are. An author who creates, not simply for creation, good creation, is never simple it just looks like it, but an author who creates purely in their own style so that it is impossible to picture it presented any other way. Gaiman is a writer who, no matter what he is doing, always manages to make the work his own.
I should stop kissing ass and actually get to the library essay. Speech actually.
I try once a week to have coffee with one of my friends who hasn’t left Tyler yet and just talk about everything and anything and these coffee dates have become a weekly series I refer to as “Coffee with Jammer.” I’m currently in talks with PBS about turning this into a series but they keep telling me there isn’t enough gratuitous nudity or shit blowing up. That and Charlie Rose is starting to call me and leave threatening messages. I keep this standing appointment because, even though I do consider myself an introvert and am often far happier sitting at home reading my books and writing these essays, social interaction is important. Keeps the voices at bay. Talking with my friends, who will deny it vociferously, I find they are often far more intelligent than me and they often have interesting things to talk about which in turn inspires new ideas for the work I produce for White Tower Musings, so you might also say that there is some selfishness on my part.
Still the most recent “Coffee with Jammer,” which was interrupted only three times by Mr. Rose’s violent text messages, took place with my fellow gentleman scholar Seth Wilson who actually has contributed an article for WTM. The coffee was lovely, and between the jokes about “Roll a D20” and “Alan Moore’s hilarious/tragic psychosis” we managed to talk a great deal about Stranger Things and writing in general. When we parted I decided to hang back and look around because “Coffee with Jammer” always takes place at the local Barnes & Noble and so after the long conversations where I’m usually intellectually stimulated I try to calm down by looking at the books. This unusually backfires because I wind becoming more and more excited by all the new books and old books and books period, and while I was passing by one table I literally swung on one foot and looked down.
The name Neil Gaiman is always enough to capture my attention because he has a consistent track record of reminding me that he’s not just talented but exceptional. With books like Sandman, Coraline, American Gods, The Tragical comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch, and The Graveyard Book Gaiman isn’t just a writer that you read and then drop his books back beside the can. His books have a real soul and power that just so completely absorbs you that it’s impossible to simply put them down. The book on the table wasn’t even all that eye catching. It was just Gaiman sitting in the back of a movie theater. In script that mimicked old abandoned typewriters it read The View from the Cheap Seats.
The title didn’t catch me as much as the subtitle: Selected Nonfiction.
Over the last two years I’ve found myself reading more and more nonfiction and, because I’m finding myself comfortable with the title of essayist, I’ve been trying to see what others have done with the form. This wasn’t enough to sell me on the book though, it was when I opened it and read the title of the first work in the collection that I snapped it shut and headed for the cashier.
Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013 has rather long title and so I’ll just shorten it to Why Our Future Depends on Libraries. I’ve mentioned it at the start but to say it once again I’ve recently begun to realize that I would like to work in a library. While part of this is just some childish romanticism thanks to The Pagemaster, the realist in me has begun to read books about libraries, watch TED talks from librarians, and actually dig into firsthand testimony by librarians about what the job entails, and after all this research I still want to work at one. Libraries are not simply book depositories and long shelves full of dusty books tended to by sexless grandmothers and men who wear sweater vests. They are in fact real cultural hubs where communities can find free and available resources for everything and anything.
This was part of the appeal of reading Gaiman’s essay, but by the end some of that romanticism I cautioned myself against had come back, and in my defense it’s difficult to avoid this when the man writes passages like the following:
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.
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 RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.
It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. (7).
I’ve never read or watched a speech delivered by a real person that actually made me cry. The only actual speeches that have brought me to tears were those delivered by President Bartlet on West Wing, and let’s be fair here that man had the benefit of pre-cocaine Aaron Sorkin to help him out. I can honestly admit without shame however that Why Our Future Depends on Libraries had me in tears by the end because it reminded me what words can actually do. Words and ideas can summon emotions, memories, feelings, passions, and dreams that have long been left buried in our hearts either because they were inconvenient, or else because we were afraid to simply speak them out or write them down lest be perceived as a fool. My emotional reaction to Gaiman’s beautiful speech is not the important idea that’s worth exploring here, although a bit of my past may help to offer some insight.
When I was a child my mother would regularly take me to the Library because every Saturday was “Book time” when one of the librarians would sit before a clustering of children and read out loud a randomly selected book, or books, to the kids, and once this activity was done there would be fun exercises involving coloring or drawing, but often what would occur is that the kids would scatter to the nearby shelves, pull out a book, sit in the big fluffy couches, and disappear into their selected paper-back tomes. I still remember the sensation of trailing my finger over the spines of books reading the titles until I found something I wanted. I remember the George and Martha, Frog & Toad, Jumanji, The Teacher from the Black Lagoon, Where the Wild Things Are, but mostly I remember a book called Bootsy Barker Bites. I must have checked this book out at least thirty times but it didn’t matter how many times I read this book I couldn’t get enough of it. Those Saturdays at the Library when I would gather whole piles of books to read at home, or have my Mom or Dad read them to me, remain so much a part of who I eventually became.
The Library fostered in me the idea that reading wasn’t just something you had to do for school, it could be fun. Once that idea was established, reading and books in general became more than just assignments, they became to learn more about other people as well as myself, and while I did have a brief period where my reading slagged off a bit, I never lost the idea that reading was an important skill not just for individual amusement, but also for the larger issue of citizenship.
Gaiman’s speech is not political in the sense of partisanship; it is only political in the fact that it declares it’s sentiments openly and without regard for criticism. Later on in the speech he exerts why he stands on the position that he does:
According to a recent study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the “only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account.”
Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce. And while politicians blame the other party for these results, the truth is, we need to teach our children to read and enjoy reading.
We need libraries. We need books. We need literature citizens.
I do not care—I do not believe it matters—whether these books are paper or digital, whether you are reading a scroll or scrolling on a screen. The content is the important thing.
But a book is also content, and that’s important.
Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.
I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us – as readers, as writers, as citizens: we have obligations. I thought I’d try and spell out some of these obligations here. (12-3).
The idea that literacy matters to a republic is not novel, but it’s still a vital idea nevertheless, and one that I try to impart to students and friends who often admit freely that they don’t care about politics. I understand the sentiment completely when it is expressed, and given the current political climate it’s any wonder that the people who care about politics are able to still find something worth talking about at this point, but after the flash and pop of the superficial campaigns and the passionate shit-storm that is discussing President Obama at Thanksgiving, politics is something vital and important and literacy is at the heart of that idea. Governments can only rule by the consent of the governed, but if the citizenry of a republic cannot even read the law for themselves then how can they make an informed decision about whether to support said laws or the politicians writing them. I recognize that I run the risk of sounding like a first year political science student who’s just read Common Sense for the first time, but I hope the reader is able to look past this.
Libraries are at the core of the idea that a democracy can only work if everyone, regardless of race, religion, class, or ethnicity can have access to reading and writing and thus offer up their own voice. Gaiman offers a more eloquent explanation than I could in a rather long quote. He talks at first about being a young man who was often “left” at a library, which for the record parents shouldn’t do because librarians are not babysitters, but it was because of these librarians that he was able to discover the importance of literacy.
They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.
Libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.
I worry that here in the twenty-first 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 world 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.
Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.
In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.
Libraries are places that people go to 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, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.
I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams 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, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content. A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now. Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood. (9-11).
We’re living in a different age than our fathers and mothers. A former professor of mine would remark to us that we had no idea how easy our jobs as students were. In the past, and he admitted this freely, he wouldn’t actually try to find articles for papers because there was just no way to do it without spending hours in the library digging through journals trying to find one quote to validate an argument. Now whole volumes of journals from a wide variety of subjects, fields, and specifications are available by selecting the right options in a drop-box. Rather than mourn this bounty of information as the death of the local library, more than ever it’s important to relish in this freedom of information and to trust libraries to provide access to it.
Despite appearances libraries are political institutions, they are often spared the partisan bullshit (though there are some horror stories) and in it’s place is a philosophical politics. As long as a society holds to the idea that everyone deserves the same opportunity to learn and participate then libraries will exist to ensure that a citizenry has access, not only to books, but to the internet, adult education, children books, books clubs, local archives, access to microfiche and local histories, and if nothing else, a space in the community where they may enjoy a few moments of quiet comfort reading a book.
Why our Future depends on Libraries is a speech that is too important not to be read, because our future really does depend on the freedom of information. The way to ensure that the next generation of readers, writers, and citizens contribute to their culture and society is by making sure there is a space that fosters intellectual curiosity and growth. Neil Gaiman growing up had a library that helped him grow as a reader, and because the UK is seeing a dramatic reduction of the number of small libraries, and as the United States drifts more and more towards a reality where libraries are seen as backwards, provincial, and useless the vital question becomes: Why do libraries matter?
Hopefully that question has been answered by now, but Gaiman’s speech offers up the only answer that leaves one satisfied.
Libraries matter because they inspire. Reading a book is a political act, it is a personal act. Once a child recognizes that they can read a book, it’s only a matter of time before they realize that they can write a book. And once that thought is implanted a voice is created which will alter the discourse of a community, or country, in ways that cannot possibly be explained except by the writer who dares to do so.
If you’re interested in reading the entire speech I managed to find a website which transcribed it and published, it online. I should forewarn the reader that it is an edited version so it may be different than the version published in The View from the Cheap Seats. If you’re interested just follow the link below: