Last week, renowned author Neil Gaiman gave a speech for The Reading Agency in which he defended the idea of books and libraries in the digital age. His argument hinges on 3 points: 1) books are crucial to our development as thinking creatures, 2) it doesn’t much matter what a child chooses to read so long as that child grow up passionate about reading, and 3) librarians are essential because they’re in a unique position to introduce new books to readers. His words are inspiring and profound, and definitely worth reading in their entirety.
To support his position, Gaiman recounts an experience he had at a Chinese science fiction convention. He approached one of the organizers of the event and asked, given that the People’s Republic has traditionally frowned upon fantastical fiction (and even went so far as to ban stories about time travel), why is China now suddenly so interested in sci-fi?
The answer given to Gaiman was startling only in that it came from the mouth of a government official. The event organizer stated that Chinese technologists have always excelled at implementing other people’s ideas, but not at coming up with their own. So they created a task force to examine creative professionals in science and industry around the world and discovered that they all had one thing in common: imaginative fiction. You don’t have to be a Ph.D. to see that reading inspires imagination, and imagination means creative problem solving and new ideas that drive our world forward.
The idea that imaginative literature is more than mere escapism is certainly a validation for someone like me, whose greatest joy is writing about robots and jet packs. And I don’t think it’s just science fiction that can take credit, because fantasies, thrillers, and all other genres can serve equally well to get us thinking, predicting, and imagining.
Once upon a time, I visited China and had an experience which might confirm the notion that fiction improves us. I was a college student travelling abroad, and two friends and I decided to take a detour for Tai Shan, a mountain famed for its amazing sunrise vista—and the seven thousand steps one needed to climb to see that sunrise. We had trudged along all day and into the night, and we were so tired that we felt ready to give up. We went so far as checking into an inn and taking off our shoes.
Then a funny thing happened. The three of us had been passing around a book about a dragon slayer—I think it was by Barbara Hambly, but it was so long ago I can’t even remember the title. The important thing was that the protagonist was both brave and clever, and we started talking about how he would never spend the night in an inn while the peak awaited. We agreed to emulate the hero’s courage by pressing on for the top that very night, so we resumed our march in the dark. We also decided to be wise like the hero by improvising warm ground covers and stools so that we wouldn’t freeze on the rocky ground as we waited for dawn. We made it, and we didn’t even die of hypothermia in the process (which was a real, if remote, danger).
The sunrise on Tai Shan had not been oversold by the generations of Chinese philosophers, poets, and artists who praised it. As the first vermilion rays crept into the sky (China’s pollution has added some amazing pigments to the celestial pallet), I realized that I was seeing it through my eyes, and also the eyes of all those poets who had put its beauty into verse. At the same time, I saw it as the dragon slayer in our shared book would have seen it: a reward for hard work and sacrifice. And as Bilbo might have seen it: the promise of a new day and new adventures. And as Mr. Spock might have seen it: a roiling mass of fusing helium atoms, all the more beautiful for being measurable and understandable.
Viewing that sunrise through all those different lenses didn’t distract me from the majesty of the event, but rather multiplied my appreciation for it. Fiction helped me see reality more clearly, and it helped me reach the peak of the mountain, both figuratively and literally. This, I think, is only one part of the power of books. I wholeheartedly agree with Gaiman’s argument, and I wish the Chinese great success in their public campaign to stimulate imagination.
How about you? Has a book ever inspired you to do something? If so, I’d love for you to leave a comment below to tell me about it.