The whole reason we are on this Earth is to learn and grow. Books, reading, writing and places that encourage those things are essential to sharing the collective knowledge and wisdom recorded throughout history. So in response to this truth, here is my argument for why reading is so important and my contribution to the Support-Your-Local-Library campaign.
Casey wrote about a trip to our local library on Saturday. They had set up a mini-golf course inside the library through the shelves of books. You can read about it here.
Libraries are important. Even today, when overwhelming amounts of information are readily at our fingertips through our laptops and smartphones, libraries are still important.
I didn’t acquire a love, let alone an appreciation for, reading, writing or language through school. My teachers didn’t seem to be passionate about reading; they were preoccupied with making us read the books that were on their lists and answer the questions in their workbooks. They weren’t too concerned with cultivating a passion for reading.
Throughout elementary school I wanted to love reading. I would pick out books that seemed cool and exciting–books that I wanted to be able to read, but could never finish (there is this one series about a mouse-knight that I was really drawn to, but the books were so big that I could never finish them. To this day I don’t remember what the series was so I still can’t finish it!). I lacked confidence when I read, so I didn’t read very much.
I was really shy when I was in school. Whenever I was called on to read in front of the class, I would get flustered and my face would turn bright red. I would choke on words and my voice would shake and I was just really uncomfortable the whole time. It wasn’t until I was in twelfth grade that I had teachers who got me excited about reading and writing and I started to gain confidence. Until then, I nurtured my love of reading by seeking out stories about mythology, samurai and the Knights Templar online and in books from the library. That, and I satisfied my love of stories by playing video games like Final Fantasy or The Longest Journey, or by watching movies.
I didn’t have anyone to point me in the right direction to build up my reading skills and confidence. There were books that I found that helped, like Deltora Quest and Harry Potter, but once I got to The Goblet of Fire, the series became daunting and I ended up stopping after a few attempts of reading part way through. Maybe if I had had someone who could have pointed me in the right direction for finding books that were appropriate for me when I was younger I would have learned to love reading much earlier. Sadly, I only had teachers who made reading a chore.
“A charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.”
I found my love of reading through playing video games that I loved, falling deeply into the imaginary worlds they crafted, through the myths and morals of the Ancient Greeks, or the mysteries and conspiracies of the Knights Templar. Reading fiction inspires and excites our imaginations, enticing us further in to the world of reading. This is why it is so important.
In his talk, Neil explains that fiction has two purposes:
First, it is “the gateway drug” into reading. When you let people read what they want to read, what they enjoy, then they are going to learn to enjoy reading. In school, we were made to read books that weren’t meant for us; books that most of us didn’t care about or couldn’t get invested in. We read The Giver in eighth grade, and Romeo and Juliet in ninth–before most of us had ever even been in love.
Our curriculum didn’t match the themes of the books we read to ones that were relatable, so most of us were left with a bitter taste in our mouths on the subject of reading. If we had been instilled with an interest in reading, and more importantly, reading for pleasure, then maybe we would have been ready for those books. But we weren’t. Reading in school was a chore, like all of our other classes; it wasn’t an escape from the dullness of tests and homework, it was just part of the mix.
Once you learn that reading is fun, “you’re on the road to reading everything.” Which is why reading is so important, especially in today’s world.
“[W]e navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.”
“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.” –Neil Gaiman
This is exactly what my schooling didn’t do. I think is important for everyone to learn that children “can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories.” That’s what I did. I was drawn to certain books, and certain stories, and I eventually found books that I wanted to, and could read. But deciding what books children need to read, isn’t doing them any good.
The second thing Neil says that fiction does is build empathy. Fiction shows you other people you have never conceived and situations different from your own, and through different eyes you see them and learn to care for and relate to them.
In his book Paper Towns, John Green writes, “Isn’t it also that on some fundamental level we find it difficult to understand that other people are human beings in the same way that we are? We idealize them as gods or dismiss them as animals.” In What is the Point of Being a Christian? (a great read) Timothy Radcliffe, OP writes that we need to learn “to see people’s faces” or to see other people as fully formed individuals. Fiction teaches us this. That the people we read about and interact with are me’s, as well.
“Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.” –Neil Gaiman
In order for all this to be possible, we simply need to have access to books. Libraries provide an environment that encourages exploration. Libraries fill in the gaps that our formal education unfortunately neglects. They provide freedom of information, of ideas, of communication and of learning. They are the homes away from home where we can go to find
literaturely literally anything we can imagine.
We have an obligation to preserve our libraries, just as we have an obligation to teach our children outside of school.
Nathan is only 6 months old, but he’s already copying everything we do. If I am using my computer he wants the computer, if I am reading a book, he wants the book. Children learn by example, so if we want them to learn that reading is good and fun, then we have to read in front of them and we have to read to them. Then they can develop a desire to read on their own and will become empathetic, creative and discontented individuals who strive to make their world a better place.
It also helps if your books are spectacularly shiny. (Check out Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately the Milk… whether you have kids to read it to or not. It is delightful.)
If you’re interested in Neil Gaiman’s talk for the Reading Agency, and want to hear him explain all of this much more eloquently, then I’ll link it here.
You can read it on the Guardian. Or you can watch it on youtube: