Thursday, January 05, 2017

Want to Change the World? Read Fiction

This morning I started reading The View From the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman. As the title suggests it's not fiction but it is written by one of the best current authors of fantasy and fiction. In the early essays, which are mostly transcriptions of speeches he has given, Gaiman talks frequently about how important it was to him as a child to have a public library nearby and to be able to read everything and anything he could get his hands on but particularly fiction and fantasy.

Fiction, he says, is a "gateway drug" to other forms of literature. It helps you fall in love with reading. It also teaches you how to imagine a better world:
You’re also finding out something as you read that will be vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this: THE WORLD DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THINGS CAN BE DIFFERENT. 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. And discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different, if they’re discontented.
Reading these essays reminds me of my own childhood and how incredibly fortunate I was that my parents were avid readers and that we had a public library nearby. My siblings and I had library cards from the time we could read, and my mom took us to the library at least a couple of times a month where we would browse the aisles and pick up a new collection of books to bring home. It was a joy for me to go to the public library, check out books, and then sit around with my family or in my room and read.

When I was in third grade at an extended family gift exchange I received a box set up JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. I remember being mildly disappointed that I received books while my cousins were opening packages with toys. I was extremely grateful, though, that I didn't receive clothes which were my least favorite Christmas gifts as a child. In any case, The Lord of the Rings was the very best gift. It became my childhood bible. I read and reread it year after year up through my teens. Countless times through those years I would open it up to a random page and read a few paragraphs or chapters and be lost again in the story. The Middle Kingdom became part of my inner world. I escaped there but I also learned, I realize now, something about how to navigate and make moral decisions in a complex world.

Gaiman has an essay on Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton. I never read G.K. Chesterton as a child. Gaiman read Lewis, Tolkien and Chesterton in that order. I read Tolkien first and then C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. I was in 5th or 6th grade when I first read Chronicles of Narnia and I was probably too old. By the time I read it I was old enough to recognize it as an allegory of the Christian story, although I doubt I knew then the definition of allegory. But I experienced it much like I experienced being in church and listening to scripture read with the "moral" or the "three points". Instead of populating my imagination with visions and dreams and possibilities, I felt like Lewis was preaching to me. I didn't much enjoy the sermon.

I realize, though, that many children and adults love Chronicles of Narnia. And that is ok. This too, is one of Gaiman's arguments. There is no "wrong" literature when you are a child. Or an adult. If there is any wrong it is in trying to tell our children what they should be reading or to be sneering down our noses at adults who read literature we think is a waste of time. Isn't my reading fantasy and fiction a waste of time? No matter how well it may be written? We don't want to go there.

I leave this post with two quotes from A View From the Cheap Seats. One is a reminder from C.S. Lewis:
As C.S. Lewis reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.
The other is a story told by Gaiman:
I spent much of the last four days with my ninety-five-year-old cousin Helen Fagin, who is a holocaust survivor and was professor of the holocaust at the University of Miami for some time, and a wonderful, remarkable woman, and she was telling me about when she was in the Radomsko ghetto in 1942. She had been at Krak√≥w University until the war interrupted her studies, so she was assigned in the ghetto to teach younger kids (she would have been nineteen, maybe twenty), and in order to assert normality, these ten-or-eleven-year-olds would come in the morning and she would teach them Latin and algebra and things that she was uncertain that they would have any use for, but she would teach them. And one night she was given a copy of the Polish translation of Gone with the Wind, and she explains this is significant in that books were banned. Books were banned by the Nazis in an incredibly efficient way, which was if they found you with a book they would put a gun against your head and shoot you. Books were very, very banned, and she was given a copy of Gone with the Wind. And each night she would draw the curtains and put the blackout in place and read, with a tiny light, two or three chapters, losing valuable sleep time, so that the next morning when the kids came in she could tell them the story of what she read, and that was all they wanted. And for an hour every day they got away. They got out of the Radomsko ghetto. Most of those kids went on to the camps. She says that she tracked them all later and discovered that four—out of the dozens of kids she taught—had survived. When she told me that it made me rethink what I do and made me rethink the nature of escapist fiction, because I thought actually it gave them an escape, just there, just then. And it was worth risking death.

1 comment:

Bill said...

I just bought my oldest daughter a Gaiman book. She's at IU; a freshman. She's a writer, but majoring in history because, "History is the best story there is..." and it's hard to argue with that! I don't remember which Gaiman I bought her, but I think I'd remember if it were the one titled "The Day I Traded My Dad ForTwo Goldfish."