I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do.
Neil Gaiman, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming”
Confession: I’d never read anything by Neil Gaiman until last week, when I read his new collection of nonfiction pieces, The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction. Well, I read most of it. I admit to skimming the essays in Section II, “Some People I Have Known”, since they presupposed a certain amount of knowledge about influential science fiction and fantasy authors. The NPR reviewer calls the 550-page book a “hefty tome”, noting that Gaiman started as a journalist in the 1980s and that a complete collection of his nonfiction would “take up volumes”.
Why did I even pick up Gaiman’s book, given that I’m not a fan of the writing he’s best known for — science fiction, fantasy, comic books, and graphic novels? (Don’t ask me what the difference is between comic books and graphic novels. All I know is that they both have tiny pictures and all-caps type, which look as though they would cause this middle-aged, non-edgy reader to take to her bed with a headache.) I don’t mean to denigrate his books; they just don’t appeal to me, the same way Jane Smiley’s trilogy about an Iowa farm family probably doesn’t appeal to the people who devour Gaiman’s Sandman series. I knew that Gaiman is considered a literary giant — as well as a huge proponent of libraries and bookstores — and I wanted to learn more about him and his writing.
I’ve never really liked genre fiction — even as a child, I didn’t care for science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels. I did love Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (which is still on my list of favorite books), and like Gaiman, I adored C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. But mostly I liked, as I still do, realistic books that were more about character than plot. If the only books that were given to me as a child were set in other worlds, or populated by non-humans, I probably wouldn’t have loved reading — just the way many young readers dislike reading when they’re force-fed a diet of “relationship” novels. In an essay called “The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography”, which isn’t about pornography at all (“that was just put in to make it a catchy title”), Gaiman discusses what makes something genre fiction:
If the plot exists to get you from the lone cowboy riding into town to the first gunfight to the cattle rustling to the showdown, then it’s a Western. If those are simply things that happen on the way, and the plot encompasses them, can do without them, doesn’t actually care if they are in there or not, then it’s a novel set in the old West.
I like novels set in the old West; I don’t like Westerns. But Gaiman points out that genre offers writers “something to play to and to play against. It gives you a net and the shape of the game. Sometimes it gives you the ball.” The framework of working within a genre makes for a better story, he argues, and nothing is more important to him than a good story. The very best stories, he suggests, transcend genre.
Gaiman, who’s written many children’s books, discusses an issue I’ve often wondered about, “that most vexing of questions . . what is a children’s book anyway?” I’d buy a copy of The View from the Cheap Seats just to read his thoughts on children and reading. Parents, he says, should not concern themselves with what children read because, first of all, children are “really good at self-censorship. They have pretty good sense of what they are ready for and what they are not, and they walk the line wisely.” They also don’t discriminate between good and bad books:
What a child takes from a book is never what an adult takes from it. Ideas that are hackneyed and dull for adults are fresh and new and world-changing for children. And besides, you bring yourself to a book, and children are capable of imbuing words with magic that not even the author knew was there.
I’m a big underliner, but it’s been a long time since I underlined as much in a book as I did in The View from the Cheap Seats. Gaiman’s views on Moby Dick, Edgar Allan Poe, James Thurber, C.S. Lewis, The Moth Radio Hour, libraries, the value of reading . . . all underlined in my copy of The View from the Cheap Seats. In one of my favorite passages, he reminisces about his favorite bookstores:
And writing this, all of those bookshops come back, the shelves, and the people. And most of all, the books, their covers bright, their pages filled with infinite possibilities. I wonder who I would have been, without those people and those places, without books.
If that’s the view from the cheap seats, I’ll take it.