The Reading Life

gaimanI’ve been reading the first couple of essays in the new collection of Neil Gaiman’s
nonfiction writing, The View from the Cheap Seats. There will certainly be more to be said about this when I’ve had a chance to really tuck into it, but the first essay, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries” is on a topic close to my heart.

The first thing that I should probably mention about this is that I’m pretty sure that I’m the only librarian in the English-speaking world who didn’t read this essay when it was first published in 2013. I don’t have anything that would qualify as an excuse. I wasn’t really familiar with Gaiman’s work at that time (although I read a lot of comics I was never a big fan of The Sandman), but I was a librarian and I now remember lots of people talking about it. Anyway, I am a librarian and so I’m pretty sympathetic to what he has to say on the topic from the off.

I am also about as voracious and obsessive a reader as you will ever meet. I read in bed and on the can and in the shower (in addition to all the other normal places to read). Back when I lived in Portland and used to walk places more than I do now, I perfected the skill of reading while walking. I’m impelled to read constantly by my fear that sooner or later people will pick up on the fact that I’m not nearly as bright as I might seem at first glance. Maybe if I can just squeeze a few more books in I can maintain the facade a little longer.

I mostly read nonfiction, partly for reasons related to my fear of being caught out, and partly because I’m convinced that the world is about to collapse into utter anarchy (or worse) and I’d like to get a leg up on the signs of impending doom. But I also read comics and graphic novels, even the occasional science fiction novel. It’s hard for me to stay concentrated on fiction though, once again because I can’t shake the feeling that we are on the verge of a new dark age.

Having said all that, reading Gaiman’s essay on librarianship was really quite pleasant, even life affirming. He puts his finger on a number of the things that I think make the job eminently worth doing. One thing one discovers as a reference librarian is that one is the helper of last resort. For no money at all people can come in (or call you up) and as you every sort of question that people with more power, or money, or with better things to do generally aren’t interested in helping them with. That’s the kind of thing that makes you feel pretty good about your life choices, at least from time to time.

At one point in his talk, Gaiman mentions that for-profit prison companies use rates of illiteracy as a back of the envelope way of estimating their future needs for capacity. Ok, one should probably not make too much of this. Crime is a complex sociological issue, and it’s at least arguable that illiteracy is a much a symptom of other conditions as criminality is. By the same token we shouldn’t make too much of the salutary effects of literacy. One group that was statistically over-represented among the leaders of Nazi mobile killing squad was holders of doctorates, so there’s that.

Still, I feel like there are a lot of society’s ills that would be ameliorated (if perhaps not cured) if people would simply more and with more variety. Gaiman’s talk makes a passionate case for reading fiction, and I can’t really argue with me. But I also feel like the world would really be improved if people would read more nonfiction books. And not just nonfiction generally, but books by people with whom one disagrees. Reading something that one disagrees with is a lot more healthy than reading things with which one knows fro the outset that one agrees. People should do rather more of this, even if reading things by people with whom one agrees also has virtue.

I don’t bother arguing with people very much. This will certainly come as a shock to people who knew me in the days of my youth. When I was in my teens and twenties I would argue with people about the color of the sky, often in the most bloodthirsty style. I’m kind of surprised I have any friends left at all from those days. But since then I’ve really given it up. When people offer to argue with me (particularly about politics) I’m reminded of an old W.C. Fields short I saw as a boy in which an insurance salesman is trying to entice him to buy a policy by listing the various benefits he’ll get if he dies. At one point, Fields says, “What do I get if I live, a velocipede?” This sums up my feelings on the matter. I could argue with with, but what do I get for taking the energy to convince you?

Nowadays I really won’t talk politics with anyone who I haven’t assured myself isn’t crazy or stupid, and that’s a process that (for me) often takes years. I don’t mind writing about things, and if people want to offer up reasoned commentary I’m willing to argue on that basis, but it’s because this is a medium that lends itself to the provision of references and other background material, rather than relying on bare assertion. In any case, this too sums up what I like about being a librarian: I can find you the information that you’re looking for. To the extent that I can offer that service to people I can make what’s left of American democracy just a little bit better.

 

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