Sometimes an essay is so brilliant that it takes one's breath away. Neil Gaiman's October 14 talk to the Reading Agency at the Barbican in London is one shining example. Gaiman is the author of several books, including Coraline and The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

In his talk, he explained in simple but powerful terms why our future depends on reading. He described attending a talk in New York about the building of private prisons. A crucial issue was how to project the number of prisoners in 10-15 years. As it turns out, there was a simple algorithm for that: What percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds currently cannot read? "And certainly couldn't read for pleasure," he added.

One needn't read high-brow stuff to derive the benefits of reading. Gaiman described attending a sci-fi conference in China in 2007, a surprising event since Chinese authorities had always frowned on the genre as frivolous. Why had they changed their minds? As one top official put it, they realized that their people were brilliant at making things other people designed, but they themselves did not innovate or invent. So they sent a delegation to Apple, to Microsoft, and to Google to ask the people there to talk about themselves. What they found was this: All of them had read science fiction when they were children.

Gaiman points out that "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."

How does fiction work its magic? "Fiction has two uses", Gaiman, explained. "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... And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy."

For that reason, Gaiman claims that "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."

Books, in short, are portals to other worlds and other minds.

To read more of this though-provoking essay, click here

Copyright Denise Cummins, PhD October 17, 2013. This blog also appeared in Huffington Post.

Dr. Cummins is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think (2012, Cambridge). For more about this and other books by Dr. Cummins, click here.

For more information about Dr. Cummins click here.

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