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Imagination under threat

October 30th, 2013
10:23 AM ET

By Mick Krever, CNN

Neil Gaiman is many things: A writer, a screenwriter, a storyteller. But before all that, he is first and foremost and defender of imagination.

And imagination, he says, is under threat.

“The imagination – it's a muscle,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Wednesday. “It's a really important thing. If you want to build the future, if you want to create a literate generation, if you want to create a generation that is not criminal.”

Gaiman says that libraries – those endangered stockpiles of, yes, physical books – are a critical wellspring for imagination.

“I was a booky kid,” he said. “I will never forget the joy of getting my parents to drop me off at the local library on their way to work, and just going in and reading my way through the children's library, going and exploring in the card catalog back when they had card catalogs.”

“Pulling books off the shelf and then nervously edging out into the adult world” – and “discovering the joy” of the inter-library loan system!

It was – and is – “absolute magic.”

Penny pinchers and technologists alike, he said, are mistaken to think that we can do without libraries.

“You can have a million books on your iPad, so why would you worry about this thing? Let's close it and save money.”

“It misses everything I think that libraries are good for, and librarians are good for.”

Libraries, he said wistfully, are bastions of discovery.

Of course, imagination is not just about finding new books at the local library.

Parents, he told Amanpour, have an “obligation” to read to their children.

“The joy of reading to children, the joy of doing the voices, the joy of finding some time where you are not being distracted by telephones, by televisions, by all of the glorious distractions of the twenty-first century – you make some time and you read and tell stories – is huge,” he said.

“It tells children that they can go into these books, into these forests of words,” Gaiman said. “They can take these 26 symbols and a handful of punctuation marks and build them into stories themselves.”

One of Gaiman’s most well-known works was Coraline, a novella and later a movie that was nominated for an Academy Award.

But the name “Coraline,” he said, was the result of a mistake – not deep thought.

“I remember typing a letter to somebody named Caroline and looking down and I'd mistyped it into Coraline,” he told Amanpour. “And I thought, that should be a name – what a great name! I wonder what somebody like that will be like?”

It’s an important lesson for any aspiring artist, he said.

“There's nothing wrong with mistakes. Mistakes demonstrate that you're actually out in the world and you're doing something. You are active. You're engaged.”

For too many young artists he meets, he told Amanpour, the fear of mistakes is paralyzing.

“They're sure it has to be perfect; and that terror of trying to be perfect stops them doing anything.”

“What I try and tell people is use your mistakes,” Gaiman said. “Treasure your mistakes.”

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soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Walker Collage

    Imagination is sparked in many ways. I used to read both the Yellow and White pages as a child, because there wasn't anything much else to amuse me sometimes. I'd also read the dictionary, for the same reason: Boredom.

    Eventually I grew up, and became a successful rock musician.

    October 30, 2013 at 11:46 am | Reply
  2. Osagie AGBONZE

    A man pour. I imagine.

    October 30, 2013 at 12:38 pm | Reply
  3. Beth

    Oh I have been saying that for a while now in the form of "creativity is a muscle and the more you use it the bigger and better it gets," It is wonderful to hear there are like minded people out there. As for books and libraries – part of the love of reading for me is the smell of the books and the peace of a library. Kindle will never replace that, for me anyway.

    October 30, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Reply
  4. Hank Lion

    Wow, one would imagine such an interesting topic to be written with a bit more imagination.

    Or was Mick Kreven intentionally trying to prove the point Neil Gaiman was making by writing such an uninspiring and unimaginative piece about it?

    October 30, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Reply
    • Roddo

      Hank, funny comment. I was thinking the exact thing!

      October 30, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Reply
    • GKK

      Imagine it!

      October 30, 2013 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  5. Aino A Järvinen

    I agree completely.

    October 30, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Reply
  6. Hastur AG

    Great inspirational speech by Neil Gaiman

    October 30, 2013 at 7:13 pm | Reply

    Sounds like the laments of the digital immigrants under threat. I am perfectly happy to read off my ipad, I still own and use physical books and spend time in libraries and bookshops. Technologies hasn't threatened imaginations; it offered new ways to inspire and connect that so happens to compete with books. Ask Jane McGonigal if video games can provide valuable social time to engage parents and children. The child doesn't passively sit and listen, the child controls his own character and interacts with his family. It's like books, except better.

    October 30, 2013 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  8. Hillman

    I don't buy that the disappearing library is what kills imagination. The Internet has more than made up the slack. The number one imagination killer, the slayer of creativity and independent thought and ultimate promoter of soul crushing conformity and hopelessness is what we call the public school system. Took me decades to throw off the mental shackles they put on me. You are lucky if you get one inspiring teacher and even then, you have to constantly dodge the loving social instruction from the lower primates.

    October 30, 2013 at 9:05 pm | Reply
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