Tag Archives: fiction


John Berger (RIP) and Susan Sontag Take Us Inside the Art of Storytelling (1983)

Source: http://www.openculture.com/2017/01/john-berger-rip-and-susan-sontag-take-us-inside-the-art-of-storytelling-1983.html

“Somebody dies,” says John Berger. “It’s not just a question of tact that one then says, well, perhaps it is possible to tell that story,” but “it’s because, after that death, one can read that life. The life becomes readable.” His interlocutor, a certain Susan Sontag, interjects: “A person who dies at 37 is not the same as a person who dies at 77.” True, he replies, “but it can be somebody who dies at 90. The life becomes readable to the storyteller, to the writer. Then she or he can begin to write.” Berger, the consummate storyteller as well as thinker about stories, left behind these and millions of other memorable words, spoken and written, when he yesterday passed away at age 90 himself.

This conversation aired 35 years ago as “To Tell a Story,” an hourlong episode of Channel 4’s Voices, “a forum of debate about the key issues in the world of the arts and the life of the mind.” Though Berger and Sontag surely agreed in life on more than they disagreed (“not since [D.H.] Lawrence has there been a writer who offers such attentiveness to the sensual world with responsiveness to the imperatives of conscience,” the latter once said of the former), they here enter into a kind of debate about storytelling itself: why we do it, how we do it, when we can do it. Berger, for his part, characterizes all fiction as “a fight against the absurd,” against “that endless, terrifying space in which we live.”

Sontag, in the words of Lily Dessau at Berger’s publisher Verso, “considers the storyteller as inventor, in control of the material, out of which the ‘people come.’ Berger conversely takes the form of the story as the result of the language coming out of the people — but he does characterize their differing views as arriving at the same place — the scene of the text.” While both of them wrote fiction as well as essays, “Berger considers the story and essay in one breath, both as a form of struggle to model the unsayable,” while “for Sontag the two are entirely separate, although the struggle persists in both.”

Or, as Berger puts it in highlighting another aspect of the difference in their perspectives, “You say you want to be carried away by the story. I want the story to stop things being carried away into oblivion, into indifference.” The many tributes already paid to him, especially by influential creators formed in part by the influence of his work, indicate that Berger’s legacy hardly finds itself now on the brink of an indifferent oblivion. Now that his long life has reached the end of its final chapter, well, perhaps we can begin to read, and to tell, his story.

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Should Novels Aim for the Heart or the Head? – The New York Times

Is it a good thing for a novel to stimulate our emotions? Montaigne, Brecht and others thought not.

Source: Should Novels Aim for the Heart or the Head? – The New York Times

The devil is in the detail. Talking about moments when excruciating gallstone pains made him believe he was soon to die, Montaigne remarks: “When I looked upon death as the end of my life, universally, then I looked upon it with indifference. Wholesale, I could master it: Retail, it savaged me; the tears of a manservant, the distributing of my wardrobe, the known touch of a hand, a routine word of comfort discomforted me and made me weep.”

It is the details that attach us to life and arouse our emotions. “A hound, a horse, a book, a wineglass and whatnot,” Montaigne observes, all “had their role in my loss.” Reasoning and accumulated wisdom, he goes on, may give us some insight into human grief, but it is the small things, picked up by ears and eyes — “organs which can be stirred by inessentials only” — that will really have an impact. So we might be aware of, but not greatly moved by, the plight of Syrian refugees until the photograph of a dead child face down in the sand triggers our emotions and has us bursting into tears.

Having made these observations, Montaigne embarks on what might best be described as a creative writing lesson in reverse. Literature, he points out, is adept at exploiting this aspect of our psychology; it focuses on evocative inessentials to stimulate our emotional response. Generally unmoved by the human condition, we nevertheless “disturb our souls with fictional laments.” It hardly even matters that they are invented: “The plaints of Dido and Ariadne in Virgil and Catullus arouse the feelings of the very people who do not believe in them.”

And he asks a question that no one asks these days: “Is it right for the arts to serve our natural weakness and to let them profit from our inborn animal-stupidity?” Aside from its astute selection of moving detail, art is constantly in the business of manipulating our emotions, as if this were an end in itself. This, after all, was Plato’s objection to the arts and every kind of artistic effect — that it was manipulative and potentially mendacious. Or simply a waste: “How often,” Montaigne asks, “do we encumber our spirits with yellow bile or sadness by means of such shadows?”

If we apply these ideas to narrative fiction as it is today, what do we find? First, the idea that a book, or film for that matter, stimulates extreme emotions is constantly deployed as a promotional tool. Terrifying, hair-raising, profoundly upsetting, painfully tender, heartbreaking, devastating, shocking, are all standard fare in dust-jacket blurbs and newspaper reviews; it is as if the reader were an ectoplasm in need of powerful injections of adrenaline. Anything that disturbs us, arouses us, unsettles us, is unconditionally positive. “You will be on the edge of your seat.” “Your heart will be thumping.” “Your pulse will be racing.” Aristotle’s response to Plato, that arousing emotion could be positive so long as the emotion was clarified, cathartically contained and understood, is rarely invoked. At best there is the implication that arousing emotions fosters sympathy, perhaps even empathy, with fictional characters and that such sympathy then breaks down our prejudices and hence is socially useful. So readers will frequently be invited to contemplate the sufferings of threatened minorities or discriminated-against ethnic groups, or the predicament of those who are young, helpless and preferably attractive. But this is an alibi and we all know it; what matters is stimulating emotion to sell books.

Similarly, creative writing courses, as far as I am able to judge, are obsessed with technique — how to arrive at that powerful detail, how to give it prominence, how to grab the reader, not why we want to grab the reader or to what end. Traditional literature courses used to reflect on the way detail was used inside a novel’s overall vision. The present zeitgeist invites us only to contemplate how the trigger can be pulled, not where the bullet is going, because the purpose of creative writing courses — especially when the fees are high — is to teach the would-be writer how to produce a publishable narrative, not a “good,” let alone a “responsible” narrative.

Montaigne is hardly alone in criticizing an overeasy excitement of the sentiments. In recent times, Bertolt Brecht objected to the stimulation of emotional identification with fictional characters, and Muriel Spark argued strongly against arousing compassion in novels; it allowed readers, she complained, to “feel that their moral responsibilities are sufficiently fulfilled by the emotions they have been induced to feel.” She advocated satire and ridicule instead as more effective tools of social criticism.

Samuel Beckett entirely rejected the idea of narrative as a vehicle for arousing emotion. Again and again he blocks any sympathy for his characters, drawing attention to their fictional status, making their suffering grotesque and comic rather than endearing. Yet even he understands how naturally narrative moves in this direction, admitting that in the final analysis even the struggle to avoid arousing emotions will confer a kind of pathos on the author.

But does it actually matter? Why not let novels stimulate emotions all they will and readers buy into them as intensely as they wish? The hell with it. What on earth could be wrong with that?

Montaigne’s comments on the evocative power of detail are not isolated. He lived in an age of division and dogmatism; the religious wars between Catholics and Huguenots lasted almost 40 years and caused countless deaths. In 1572 the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre alone saw thousands of Huguenots killed by their Catholic enemies. Montaigne’s position was always that we must be extremely careful about our emotions, in particular our tendency to get emotional about ideas. He didn’t advise neutrality, but simply that “we should not nail ourselves so strongly to our humors and complexions.” To foster emotions deliberately and habitually was dangerous, because once a strong emotion had kicked in it was very difficult to find a way back. Certainly, had he been alive today, he would have seen a continuity not just between violent fiction and real violence, war films and war, but also more generally between a culture that has turned the stimulation of emotion into a major industry and a society torn apart by heated conflicts of all kinds.

No civilization has ever produced as much narrative as our own, and with so little collective control. Thousands upon thousands of stories and novels are published worldwide every month. Not to mention TV series and films. There is intense competition: competition to get published, competition to win prizes, competition to reach a national audience, competition to reach an international audience. Of course there are various cards to play in that competition: wit, creativity, ideology, comedy, savviness; but the factor most frequently stressed, the one no one can do without, is emotional impact. When was the last time you heard a novel praised because it invited the reader to a higher level of intellectual engagement with complex issues? Or because it retreated from spicy detail to offer a balanced view of life overall? Or because its characters managed to handle potentially dangerous conflicts without arriving at a destructive showdown? Often as we read it seems that all the energy and creativity of the writer has been channeled into conjuring up those piquant, lurid or simply shocking details that will unleash the reader’s emotions.

How can we suppose that this state of affairs, this constant rush for the most disturbing, the most poignant, the most emphatic, the most terrifying, has no effect on the way we respond to the dramas of our lives? As I write this morning, three months after Brexit, two months after the Republican Convention nominated Donald Trump, following a summer that has seen scores of deaths from terrorism and with Aleppo still under relentless bombing, all I hear around me is violent, overheated, highly emotional rhetoric, ferocious discrediting of all adversaries, poignant details of the lives of unlucky victims, horror for the future and, beneath it all, a complacent excitement about our own capacity for feeling life intensely.

Tim Parks’s most recent book is “The Novel: A Survival Skill.”

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“Holly’s Corner,” part 13

[Writer’s note: What began as a writing prompt — photo and first paragraph — has become at least the start of a story. I will endeavor to add short sections to it, at lest as long as there is some interest. It might be a little rough in parts, but that’s because it is coming “hot off the press,” which could be part of the fun of it. In the meantime, you are free to jump off from any part of this story thus far and write your own version. Click Holly’s Corner below to get Parts 1 – 12.]

by David E. Booker

“Tricia’s mom suspected my father of sleeping with a neighbor lady and one day while Dad and the woman were away, she broke into the woman’s house looking for evidence. She didn’t find any, but she found this recipe. According to the story Tricia’s mom told me once, this recipe was out on the counter and just for spite, she stole it. She didn’t even know what it was. She was just angry and looking for some way to let this woman know that if she was going to steal from her, she was going to steal from this neighbor lady.”

It was a cool, rainy day down at Holly's Corner.

It was a cool, rainy day down at Holly’s Corner.

“Does this neighbor lady have a name?”

Rachel shook her head. “She does, but I don’t remember it. ‘Neighbor lady’ was all my step-mom ever called her. I guess that’s all that stuck. Is it important?”

I shrugged. “Better to know than not.”

She smiled. “You sound like my dad, except he wasn’t saying it about knowledge, if you know what I mean.”

“Is your dad still living?”

Rachel shook her head. “He died in the arms of another woman, you might say.”
“Another woman he was have an affair with?”

“You could say that. Except this woman was a man … in woman’s clothing. He was one of those shemales, I guess they’re called. Disgusting is what they are. This one even had the gall to come to the funeral. Best fucking dressed bitch at the viewing. Had men slobbering after her until somebody pointed out the bump in the front of the skirt.”

“I bet that was you,” I said.

Rachel blushed slightly. It took the edge off her indignation and made her appear almost childlike – as if she’d been caught doing something she shouldn’t have, and while embarrassed, not fully repentant.

“Sure caused a titter or two at Dad’s send off.” She then started giggling. It was almost infectious. Even I smiled, but resisted the urge to join along.

“Would this transsexual have anything to do with the recipe?”

“Fuck no.”

I raised a hand. “Just thought I’d ask.”

“Though the bitch did try to get a piece of the pie, if you will, after Daddy died, claiming that he’d promised this he-thing several thousand dollars toward some final surgery.”

I wasn’t sure where to go. This still seemed more like some intra-family feud, and not one that would put food on my table.

“I think a family councilor would help you all better than a private cop.”
Rachel stared at me, and then nodded. “You’re probably right.” She gathered up her purse and her money, and then stood up from the booth. “Thank you for your time.”

She turned and marched out the front door of The Time Warp Tea Room. In the background, on the big TV screen, a black-and-white western played. A man dressed in a white hat and light-colored clothes was facing down a group of dark-dressed, black-hatted guys.

Bang, bang, you’re broke.


“A string of fools does not a strand of pearls make.”

I looked up from one of my bills and saw Father Brown standing across the desk from me. He had moved so quietly, I had not heard him.

“Some Bible passage I missed?” I asked.

Brown chuckled briefly. It was almost more of a snort. “I dare say not.”
“Not even ‘The Bible according to Father Brown’?”

“To do such a thing would be blasphemy.”

“Many of your brethren, especially on TV on Sunday mornings would disagree.”

“Barbarians and charlatans.”

“And for a modest donation, you, too, can receive this soiled section of cloth that I have put to my forehead as I prayed to God over your situation. He has shown me the truth and for only a few dollars more—”

“They wouldn’t use the word ‘soiled’ or the phrase ‘for only a few dollars more,” Brown said. “They wouldn’t be so crass.”

“But the intent would be just the same,” I said. “For a few dollars more, take you to the point of taking a few dollars more.”

“You are a cynical man,” Brown said. “I shall pray for the deliverance of your immortal soul.”

“While you’re at it, pray from some daily bread. If I don’t find paying work soon, your God may get his soul back sooner than he planned.”

“God is never surprised,” Brown said.

“Pity him.”

Brown smiled, and then shook his head. “If you don’t believe, then why’d you take me in?”

“Maybe I’m hedging my bets. Or maybe I like pissing off my neighbors.”

“I shall leave you to your ponderings.”

“And my immortal soul?”

“I shall leave you with that, too. At least for now.”

I thought about asking if it had any market value, but wasn’t sure I was ready to make any Faustian bargains with something I didn’t think I had.

Then my cell phone buzzed in its holster and I didn’t have to think about it any longer. “Gumshoe Detective Agency. We pound the pavement so you don’t have to.”

“You think you’re funny with that line? ‘We pound the pavement so you don’t have to.’” The guy’s falsetto wasn’t too grating, but I didn’t care of the mocking tone that went along with it. “I outa come over there and knock your block off.”

I hadn’t heard that phrase in a while. Nobody ever dictated that threats had to original. They might be more fun if they were.

“Come on over,” I said. “I’ll wait.”

There was silence on the wavelength. I don’t think he was expecting that. Maybe that was the reason he hung up … and then called back. I didn’t bother with my opening spiel. I already knew how he felt about that.

“You’re a real piece of work, you know that, refusing to take my wife’s case.”

“Which wife is that?” I was only half-joking. I didn’t know if Rachel was married and I didn’t know if Tricia was, either. Neither one had said and I hadn’t asked.

“Rachel, you jackass.”

“Whoever you are, if you are the husband, I think you should look after your wife, because she’ll probably have one hell of a headache. And tempting as it was to take the money she was flashing around like loose feathers from a down comforter, I try not to take money from drunk people wanting to hire me. They usually sober up and regret it.”

“She’s sobering up now, and she still wants you to take the case.” Then he said in a lower voice, “And if you don’t, I won’t hear the end of it.”

It may be sexist to say I felt sorry for the man when I heard him say it, but I did. I had spent a little time with Rachel and I could see how he might not hear the end of it. I took his address and told him I would be there in thirty minutes.

He hung up without saying thanks and that annoyed me. Manners have disappeared from the face of civility, leaving this unkempt mess of rules and political correctness. You fart in public now and you don’t say excuse me. Instead you fart and then you condescendingly sneer at anyone who looks your way as if to say, “How do you like me now, baby?”

(To be continued.)

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Filed under 2016, photo by David E. Booker, Story by author

Writing tip Wednesday: “Libraries, reading, daydreaming”

Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

A lecture explaining why using our imaginations, and providing for others to use theirs, is an obligation for all citizens

By Neil Gaiman

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming

See also: Can reading make you happier?

Neil_Gaiman 96dpi_4x3_4c copyIt’s important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of members’ interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.

And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I’m an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living though my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

So I’m biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.

And I’m here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.

And it’s that change, and that act of reading that I’m here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy. (Also, do not do what this author did when his 11-year-old daughter was into RL Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen King’s Carrie, saying if you liked those you’ll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years, and still glares at me when Stephen King’s name is mentioned.)

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

You’re also finding out something as you read 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.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

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. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.

I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.

Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before – books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book 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. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.

Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.

Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.

According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the “only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account”.

Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us – as readers, as writers, as citizens – have obligations. I thought I’d try and spell out some of these obligations here.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.
We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we ‘ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.

Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.

• This is an edited version of Neil Gaiman’s lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday October 14 at the Barbican in London. The Reading Agency’s annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming

See also: Can reading make you happier?

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Filed under 2016, writing tip, Writing Tip Wednesday

“Holly’s Corner,” part 12

[Writer’s note: What began as a writing prompt — photo and first paragraph — has become at least the start of a story. I will endeavor to add short sections to it, at lest as long as there is some interest. It might be a little rough in parts, but that’s because it is coming “hot off the press,” which could be part of the fun of it. In the meantime, you are free to jump off from any part of this story thus far and write your own version. Click Holly’s Corner below to get Parts 1 – 11.]

by David E. Booker

She looked up, saw him, and recoiled back in the chair, her feet swiping through the vomit.
Father Brown left the room again.

I didn’t want to, but I got up and stepped into the other room and told him he didn’t need to come into the room again, that I would handle it.

“But you have a low threshold for puke,” Brown said. “You’ll probably vomit on top of hers.”

It was a cool, rainy day down at Holly's Corner.

It was a cool, rainy day down at Holly’s Corner.

The smell from the other room was not appealing, either. Sharp, sour, and with a hint of booze to it.

“I would suggest you take her outside and I will clean up.”

“That would involve going back in there,” I said.

“Would you prefer I did?”

“No. That’s what started all this.”

I turned back to the room and stepped inside.


“Things ain’t always what they seem to be,” Rachel said.

I had escorted her outside and we had made it to the sidewalk before she started feeling queasy again. We made it to the alley behind the building and as is the case of many alleys, it became the home of something you don’t want to see on the main street.

There wasn’t much to her second upheaval, and when she was done, we walked a couple of doors down to The Time Warp Tea Room, where I bought her a water and a soda, hoping one of the other might help settled her stomach. I bought nothing for myself, just in case. I had almost thrown up in the alley, too.

The Time Warp Tea Room is an eclectic mix of vintage motorcycles, pinball and early video games, and a pressed metal ceiling bought from a company in Alabama and installed over the main part of the large main room. The rest of the ceiling is square tiles used often in modern drop ceilings. A large wooden circular table dominates the back of the main room and a dark-stained wooden bar with a mirror and fretwork fills much of the wall to your right as you enter. A photo of Cas Walker and an album cover of Dolly Parton’s are part of the bar décor.

We were sitting at one of the booths on the opposite wall.

“It’s not what you think.”

She had said that already, but it had been a little while ago and in a less sober state. I nodded and tried to let her get past it. She picked up a pepper shaker from the table and shock it once at me. “People killed for this at one time.” She then picked up the salt shaker. “And this used to be worth more than gold in some circles at one time.”

“How does that pertain to your recipe?”

“You must know, I don’t hate my step-sister. Or I do my best not to, but she does get on my nerves at times.”

“And this is one of those times?”

She glared at me as if I were interrupting her, which I was.

“I am willing to share the rewards from the recipe with her, but she says it was her mother’s recipe and it should be all hers.”

“Is it?”

Rachel hesitated. Not usually a good sign.

“If I tell you the truth, what does it get me.”

“The knowledge you won’t have to cover anything up, remember what lies you told, and in what order.”

“You mean people who tell the truth remember things in the exact same order every time.”

“Not every time. We can all get forgetful or tell a story out of order no matter how many times we’ve told it. But usually the same facts are there and the order can more easily be corrected. The value of telling the truth is that you only have to remember one set of facts. Even if you don’t always remember them in the right order.”

“Doesn’t sound like much.”

“Nobody ever said there was profit in truth.”

“You sound like a philosopher or shrink doctor.”

“I hang around with a priest. Some of it might rub off.”

Rachel gave me a quizzical look. My sense of humor tends to bring that out in people.

“Truth be told, the recipe belongs to a dead woman, a woman our father was sleeping with when she died.”

“Then how did your step-mother get it?” I asked.

“Tricia’s mom suspected my father of sleeping with a neighbor lady and one day while Dad and the woman were away, she broke into the woman’s house looking for evidence. She didn’t find any, but she found this recipe. According to the story Tricia’s mom told me once, this recipe was out on the counter and just for spite, she stole it. She didn’t even know what it was. She was just angry and looking for some way to let this woman know that if she was going to steal from her, she was going to steal from this neighbor lady.”

“Does this neighbor lady have a name?”

(To be continued.)

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Filed under 2016, photo by David E. Booker, Story by author

Writing tip Wednesday: “Guidance from an author”

Neil Gaiman


  1. Write.
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
  8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

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Filed under 2016, writing tip, Writing Tip Wednesday

“Holly’s Corner,” part 11

[Writer’s note: What began as a writing prompt — photo and first paragraph — has become at least the start of a story. I will endeavor to add short sections to it, at lest as long as there is some interest. It might be a little rough in parts, but that’s because it is coming “hot off the press,” which could be part of the fun of it. In the meantime, you are free to jump off from any part of this story thus far and write your own version. Click Holly’s Corner below to get Parts 1 – 10.]

by David E. Booker

“And you carry around a rolling pin because it is the latest in fashion accessories?”

She lowered the pin. “I don’t believe in guns.”

“The same can’t be said for threats.”

“Do you always speak your mind?”

It was a cool, rainy day down at Holly's Corner.

It was a cool, rainy day down at Holly’s Corner.

“I try to. Saves me having to remember things.”

She smirked again. She was a plump-but-not-fat redhead who stood probably five-seven or so. I did my best to guess with her sitting in my one overstuffed client’s chair. She wasn’t wearing any heels, little or no makeup, and the end of her nose and her nostrils flared like the loops of a three-leaf clover. She was a strawberry blond with freckles that almost worked to make her look younger than she was.

She caught me staring. “Get an eye full.”

“Enough to describe you to the police should you point your pin at me again.”

She smiled, then laughed. The small crows’ feet at the corners of her eyes. They made her face more pleasant.

“Ooohh, my head….” Rachel leaned forward and brought her hands up to the sides of her head. The rolling pin clattered to the scuffed and marred hardwood floor. Another mark wasn’t going to be noticed.

Father Brown stepped in carrying a glass of water and what looked like a couple of aspirin. When Rachel looked up, he urged her to take them. She hesitated, and then accepted. He turned and left the room.

She looked at me. “Do you always provide your clients such service?”

“Father Brown has a knack and since you are not my client, he does it for non-clients, too.”


“Retired priest.”

She had started swallowing the aspirin, then stopped.

“He … naht … chilf … masqaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaauhhh.”

I nodded. “Yeah, that one.”

She started choking.

“I suggest-—”

Too late. She jerked forward and threw up on my rug. It was a yard sale special, so it wasn’t my favorite color or pattern, but I couldn’t afford a new one.

Father Brown rushed back into the room, bucket in hand, but Rachel had wretched her last bit of food out and onto the rug. She had a few bits of spit for the blue plastic container.

She looked up, saw him, and recoiled back in the chair, her feet swiping through the vomit.

(To be continued.)

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Filed under 2016, photo by David E. Booker, Story by author