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Three: in the library

How do you cite a graphic novel? I’ve been reading Art Matters by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell. And I want to write about it but simply quoting the words doesn’t work, so I have decided that pictures of the pages of the book may be better. They are all from the chapter entitled ‘why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming’. (As an aside, I really recommend the book – it makes for inspiring reading.) 

I’ve been looking for ways to think about my professional practice, my work and the future that isn’t bleak technological determinism, surveillance capitalism or decided by algorithms. I’ve found starting points for theory, policy and the wider context, but this post is more about the personal dimension, the ‘what do you get out of bed for’ part of any creative endeavour. Art Matters is a good book about practice and work, and although it is mostly written from the perspective of creative professionals like artists, musicians and writers, I think the heart of the book is just as relevant to working in education or edtech. 

I read so much that I don’t often think about reading. So the page above made me pause. In this bit Gaiman talks about how important it is to read when you are young, or rather to get into the habit of reading for pleasure as early as possible. It reads: 

You are 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. 

This is about reading fiction, reading for fun,  but I think it’s equally useful to consider in the context of reading policy, reports and so forth. Much of what I read about innovation, disruption and change, other than research, doesn’t seem to be about things actually changing, about things being different. 

I like the idea that reading fiction builds empathy. It sounds very akin to ethnographic fieldwork. To see the world through other eyes. The idea that reading fiction as a journey that changes us is simple and powerful. It rings true to me. And it can be true of other stories, too. Really good lectures, inspiring keynotes, research.. the stories we tell. I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of building empathy before. 

I read a lot in all media. And the pages of the book (above)  made me reflect on how something like a book remains valuable and relevant even though there are other formats, alternative choices. It says:

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate to screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, over twenty years before digital books showed up, a physical books is like a shark. Sharks are old. There were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. … physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath resistant, solar operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. 

I want that to be true. I think it goes back to what I wrote about in the last post, that it’s not helpful to frame our relationship with technology, with digital things, in terms of which one is better, which one becomes obsolete. It seems more helpful to appreciate that for instance physical and digital books can exist alongside each other. Like audio books and physical books, complimentary and each good in its own way. Plus, I really appreciate the bath reference. Sometimes there’s a story you can’t put down and you want to keep reading even in the bath. Some of my favourite books have spent days carefully drying out next to the radiator.

Earlier in the chapter Gaiman talks more about the importance of literacy, libraries and access to information. Even though it’s both interesting and important, I am going to skip that bit and hopefully let you read that for yourself. Instead, I want to come back to what he says about imagination. 

Fiction is the lie that tells the truth. We all have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that society is huge and the individual is less than nothing. But the truth is individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different

This is one of the radical bits of the book. There are quite a few, as it is mostly written like a call to action, a manifesto, but this bit in particular reminded me of something I have been thinking about recently: namely how hard it is to make something that is true for us, something that we feel is important, sound valid. Somehow I feel like I ought to proof. 

Such words as ‘imagine that things can be different’ can easily sound trite and get dismissed quickly. Partly, I think, because of the responsibility they entail. It’s after all within my power to daydream, to imagine… to do better, to speak up, to make a change. It doesn’t require anything but my will to do that and so it’s entirely up to me. It’s within my power as an individual, a human being, but that means it’s also my responsibility – and that is the bit that many don’t feel comfortable with regardless of whether you are talking about inequality or technology or reading books or making art. 

It’s what I really like about this book. It’s funny and it talks of failure. The loneliness of writing and the comic mistakes made. And the tragic ones. It’s about making choices and putting important things first. And so I am going to borrow yet more words from it to end this post with the following parting thought: 

… ‘the things I did because I was excited, and wanted to see them exist in reality, have never let me down, and I’ve never regretted the time spent on any of them.’

Soundtrack for this post:
Dreams by The Cranberries

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