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Neil Gaiman on The Importance of Reading, Libraries, and Imagination

Neil Gaiman on The Importance of Reading

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.
If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.Albert Einstein

Neil Gaiman, who brought us one of the best commencement speeches ever, chimes in on with a lecture explaining why using our imaginations is an obligation for all citizens.

The correlation between illiteracy and prison growth.

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.

Literacy is more important now then ever.

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.

On fiction as a gateway drug.

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.

[W]ords 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.

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. … Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

This reminds me of Keith Oatley, who when explaining the role of fiction in our lives employed the metaphor of a flight simulator. A flight simulator allows pilots-in-training to safely and quickly learn how to deal with all sorts of problems that might happen in the air. Fiction, Oatley argues, “allows us to experience emotions in a safe place, training us to understand ourselves and others.”

How well-meaning adults can kill a love of reading.

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. … Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around.

Science fiction makes its way to China and the importance of imagination.

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.

On the value of libraries and why anyone who sees them as nothing more than a shelf of books misses the point.

[L]ibraries 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.

On moving from an information scarce society to one overloaded.

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.

Books are a gateway to making friends with the eminent dead.

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.

Our obligation to daydream.

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

(Via @YLevitan)
(Photo via The Guardian)

Persuasion — Ancient Wisdom for Modern Leaders


We’re used to email and powerpoint so it’s hard for us to imagine the important role oratory played in the ancient world. In those days speaking to a crowd was essential. “But when Cicero talks about an orator,” Philip Freeman writes in his most recent book How to Run a Country: An Ancient Guide for Modern Leaders, “he means so much more than someone who gives speeches. To him an orator was above all a statesman who was able to express the power of an idea to the public based on knowledge and wisdom.”

Cicero writes:

Indeed oratory involves much more than people realize and depends on a wide range of skills and abilities. The fact that so few are good at it is not due to a shortage of eager learners or teachers or even a lack of natural talent. There are an infinite variety of interesting cases available, and the rewards of success can be splendid. Why then are there so few who succeed? Because an orator must master an enormous number of difficult subjects.

If a person has not acquired a deep knowledge of all the necessary disciplines involved in oratory, his speech will be an endless prattle of empty and silly words. An orator must be able to choose the right language and arrange his words carefully. He must also understand the full range of emotions that nature has given us, for the ability to rouse or calm a crowd is the greatest test of both the understanding and the practical ability of a speaker. An orator also needs a certain charm and wit, the cultured ways of a gentleman, and the ability to strike fiercely when attacking an opponent. In addition he needs a subtle grace and sophistication. Finally, an orator must have a keen mind capable of remembering a vast array of relevant precedents and examples from history, along with a thorough knowledge of the law and civil statutes.

I’m sure I don’t need to say much about the actual delivery of a speech. This includes the way in which an orator carries himself, how he uses gestures, the expressions on his face, the use of his voice, and making sure he is not monotonous. Pay special attention to that last one. You can see how important it is by looking at less serious art, by which I mean acting. For even though actors work very hard on their expressions, voices, and movements, there are precious few I would want to watch for long.

What shall I say about memory, that treasure house of all we know? Our minds hold all the words and ideas we use when thinking and speaking. Without a sharp memory, even the most carefully planned speech will be worthless.

So you can see why true orators are a rare breed. They must command a wide range of skills, though mastering even one of them would be considered quite an achievement. So let us urge our sons and anyone else whose reputation and glory matter to us to appreciate the magnitude and complexity of this task. They must not suppose they can become fine orators simply by following rules or finding a good teacher or going through some common exercises. They might have the ability to achieve their goal, but they must do much more.

I believe that no one can become a truly great orator unless he has a solid foundation in the whole range of human knowledge. This knowledge will ground and enrich everything he has to say. If an orator doesn’t have this kind of background and learning, all he says will be vain and childish. Of course I’m not saying that an orator has to know everything, especially amid the hustle and bustle of modern life, but I am convinced that anyone who calls himself an orator must be able to competently handle any subject that comes his way, so that both the form and substance of his speeches will be of high quality. . . .

What could be more pleasing to the ear and to the mind than a beautiful speech adorned with wise thoughts and words carefully chosen? Think of the amazing power a single orator has to move an audience, to sway the verdict of jurors, or to shape the opinion of the senate. What could be more noble, more generous, more beautiful? An orator has the power to rescue supplicants, to lift the downtrodden, to bring deliverance to those in need, to free the oppressed from danger, and to stand up for the rights of citizens. . . .

I declare that the highest achievement of oratory is that it alone was able to bring together scattered people into one place, to start a wild and intemperate race on the road to human civilization, to establish communities, and to furnish them with laws that guarantee rights and justice. I could go on forever, but instead I will simply say that when a wise and moderate orator speaks well, he brings not only honor to himself, but also salvation to his fellow citizens and indeed to his whole country.

In addition to How to Run a Country, Freemon also selected and translated How To Win An Election.

Improve Your Life by Paying Attention


“Few things are as important to your quality of life as your choices about how to spend the precious resource of your free time,” writes Winifred Gallagher, author of the book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.

That your experience largely depends on the material objects and mental subjects that you choose to pay attention to or ignore is not an imaginative notion, but a physiological fact. When you focus on a stop sign or a sonnet, a waft of perfume or a stock-market tip, your brain registers that “target,” which enables it to affect your behavior. In contrast, the things that you don’t attend to in a sense don’t exist, at least for you.

All day long, you are selectively paying attention to something, and much more often than you may suspect, you can take charge of this process to good effect. Indeed, your ability to focus on this and suppress that is the key to controlling your experience and, ultimately, your well-being.

What is attention anyways?

Attention is commonly understood as “the concentration of the mental powers” or “the direction or application of the mind to any object of sense or thought. Recently, however, a rare convergence of insights from both neuroscience and psychology suggests a paradigm shift in how to think about this cranial laser and its role in behavior: thoughts, feelings, and actions. Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships.

If you could look backward at your years thus far, you’d see that your life has been fashioned from what you’ve paid attention to and what you haven’t. You’d observe that of the myriad sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that you could have focused on, you selected a relative few, which became what you’ve confidently called “reality.” You’d also be struck by the fact that if you had paid attention to other things, your reality and your life would be very different.

If this sounds a lot like mindfulness, you’re on the right track. And there is no one better to learn from than Sherlock Holmes.

So if attention is the key, what should you pay attention to? The positive.

… Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shows that paying attention to positive emotions literally expands your world, while focusing on negative feelings shrinks it — a fact that has important implications for your daily experience.

You have the ability to control what you focus on …

As to the idea that the ability to focus on this rather than on that gives you control over your experience and well being, Kahneman says that both the Dalai Lama and the Penn positive psychologist Martin Seligman would agree about the importance of paying attention: “Being able to control it gives you a lot of power, because you know that you don’t have to focus on a negative emotion that comes up.”

At the end of a discussion of attention and decision-making, Kahneman remarks on research that suggests older people connect more with the experiencing self, which is inclined to pay rapt attention to little everyday delights, like sunbeams dancing on water or music drifting through a window.

Always look on the bight side.

As the abundance of vaguely annoying sayings such as “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” proves, the idea of restoring emotional equilibrium by refocusing on a problem in a different way is not new. What is is the impressive research that increasingly shows that Pollyanna’s insistence on “looking at the bright side,” even in tough situations, is a powerful predictor of a longer, happier, healthier life.

If a snowstorm prevents a trip to the store for groceries, one person curses the weather and has a rotten day, while another quickly focuses on what a good thing it is to be snug inside and to have that nice leftover meatloaf. Research on the so-called cognitive appraisal of emotions, pioneered by the psychologists Magda Arnold and Richard Lazarus, confirms that what happens to you, from a blizzard to a pregnancy to a job transfer, is less important to your well-being than how you respond to it. Because your reaction to any event is at least partly a matter of interpretation, the aspects you concentrate on become what the UNC psychologist Barbara Fredrickson calls “leverage points” for a simple attentional-attitudinal adjustment that works as an emotional “reset button.” If you want to get over a bad feeling, she says, “focusing on something positive seems to be the quickest way to usher out the unwanted emotion.”

That’s not to say that when something upsetting happens, you immediately try to force yourself to “be happy.” First, says Fredrickson, you examine “the seed of emotion,” or how you honestly feel about what occurred. Then you direct your attention to some element of the situation that frames things in a more helpful light. After a big blowup over an equitable sharing of the housework, rather than continuing to concentrate on your partner’s selfishness and sloth, you might focus on the fact that at least a festering conflict has been aired, which is the first step toward a solution to the problem, and to your improved mood. Interestingly, people who are depressed and anhedonic—unable to feel pleasure—have particular trouble using this venerable attentional self-help tactic. This difficulty suggests to Fredrickson that they suffer from a dearth of happiness rather than a surfeit of sadness: “It’s as if the person’s positive emotional systems have been zapped or disabled.”

How you react to life is more important than what happens. Those are the words that legendary psychiatrist and Auschwitz-survivor, Viktor Frankl, so aptly found out the hard way. In Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote:

Everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstance, to choose one’s own way.

Oh, and one more thing. While we think that shopping makes us feel better, it doesn’t.

Despite your initial excitement and a high price tag, adaptation guarantees that your focus will soon stray from the wondrous pleasures of your new computer or larger apartment, consigning them to mere comfort status. Rather than binging on such big, costly amenities, a better — and cheaper — strategy for boosting your daily satisfaction quotient would be to add many more simple, inexpensive ones … After all, on any given Monday morning, your comfortable bank balance pales beside a good cup of coffee.

Paying attention to what you pay attention to is a simple point. If you think multi-tasking is the answer: it isn’t. Reading Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, is a quick reminder that what you focus on can literally change your world.

Napoleon’s Fatal Mistake

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” — Victor Hugo


France of the 1790’s provided an ideal place for Napoleon Bonaparte’s unlikely rise to the top. Paul Johnson explains in Napoleon: A Life:

It demonstrated the classic parabola of revolution: a constitutional beginning; reformist moderation quickening into ever-increasing extremism; a descent into violence; a period of sheer terror, ended by a violent reaction; a time of confusion, cross-currents, and chaos, marked by growing exhaustion and disgust with change; and eventually an overwhelming demand for “a Man on horseback” to restore order, regularity, and prosperity.

Napoleon epitomized opportunism.

Bonaparte believed not in revolution but in change; perhaps accelerated evolution is the exact term. He wanted things to work better, or more fairly, and also faster. In England he would have been a utilitarian; in the United States, a federalist and a follower of Alexander Hamilton …

For better or worse, he was a product of the revolution.

The program could not have been successfully carried out without Bonaparte—that is certain. But equally certain is that Bonaparte would not have possessed the ruthless disregard of human life, of natural and man-made law, of custom and good faith needed to carry it through without the positive example and teaching of the Revolution. The Revolution was a lesson in the power of evil to replace idealism, and Bonaparte was its ideal pupil.

In this awesome transformation, Bonaparte was the Demogorgon, the infernal executive, superbly molded by nature and trained by his own ambitions and experiences to take the fullest advantage of the power the Revolution had created and bequeathed to him.

In his first invasion of Italy in 1796, an “imaginative and symbolic” success he set the tone for his relationship with his troops:

Soldiers, you are naked, ill-fed. … But rich provinces and great towns will soon be in your power, and in them you will find honor, glory, and wealth. Soldiers of Italy! Will you be wanting in courage and steadfastness [to obtain these things.]

His implicit contract with his troops: win the war and take the loot. One small and powerful gesture that might be looked over is that Bonaparte made it easy for their spoils to be transferred back to their families.

This made military sense, for it enabled soldiers to save instead of squandering their trophies on drunken debauchery.

Part of Napoleon’s success resulted from the difference between him and his enemies. The Duke of Wellington, who would ultimately be victorious at Waterloo, pinpointed Bonaparte’s advantage.

I can hardly conceive of anything greater than Napoleon at the head of an army—especially a French army. Then he had one prodigious advantage—he had no responsibility—he could do what he pleased; and no man ever lost more armies than he did. Now with me the loss of every man told. I could not risk so much. I knew that if I ever lost 500 men without the clearest necessity, I should be brought one my knees to the bard of the House of Commons.

Before Bonaparte, Wellington had only seen delegated power in the field. Now he was facing direct power. For example, he appointed his own subordinates whereas Wellington often had generals foisted upon him.

This reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath, in terms of how the weak win wars. Often they don’t appear to play by what we consider the established rules. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, Arreguín-Toft concludes in his book How the Weak Win Wars, they win, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”

Napoleon enjoyed a freedom to take risks that his adversaries wouldn’t or couldn’t take for political or other reasons. These risks fit perfectly with “his general strategy of swift aggression and offensive battle seeking.”

The soldiers liked this high-risk approach. In their calculations, they were as likely to be killed by a defensive and cautious commander as by an attacking one, and with little chance of loot to balance the risk.


Ultimately Bonaparte’s most useful weapon was fear.

It was this one he employed most frequently. In his aggressive strategy, it gave him a head start-it was as though an invisible army had softened up the enemy’s defenses before a French shot was fired.

When fighting campaigns, Bonaparte, with few exceptions, was usually vastly outnumbered. Often the other side was a coalition of nations.

His strategy therefore was not only to strike quickly but to strike between his opponents’ forces, before they could join together. He went for each in turn, hoping he would have numerical superiority and defeat them separately. The Allied armies thus rarely had the confidence of numbers, and even when they had, Bonaparte’s notorious ability to bring up reinforcements quickly and surprisingly tended to undermine it.

Napoleon also showed a great understanding by aligning his instructions with his strategy.

No matter how well drilled and disciplined, a unit was likely to lose formation if ordered to carry out complicated movements over distances. Hence, the simpler the plan the better, and the simplest plan as: attack!

Generals for their part, preferred simple plans. Often these instructions had to be carried by hand to the front line and innumerable things could go wrong.

Bonaparte’s most brilliant victory, at Austerlitz on 2 December 1805, can be summed up for three reasons:

First, he had complete unity of command. The senior Allied commander, M.I. Kutuzov, had in practice no chance to adopt and carry out a unified tactical plan, and authority was hopelessly divided between sovereigns and individual commanders, some of whom acted on their own initiative. Second, in the poor conditions, orders were frequently miscarried or were misunderstood or disobeyed. … Third, French united operated more efficiently. Their cavalry, and the artillery were persistently resourceful: informed that the Russians were trying to escape over frozen ponds, they quickly prepared red-hot shots and fired them into the ice, breaking it, and causing 2,000 Russians to be drowned.”

I found this bit particularly enlightening. Organizations, large and small, would do well to listen to the lesson embedded within this passage.

What few possessed—and therein lay their weakness—was independence of mind. They were, almost without exception, subordinates. Under the command of a decisive military genius like Bonaparte, they could perform prodigies. They rushed to obey his orders, to please him, to earn his praise and rewards. Sometimes, given an independent command, they acted well, especially if his orders were explicit and the task reasonably simple. But on their own, they tended to be nervous, looking over their shoulders, unresourceful in facing new problems he had not taught them how to solve. This exasperated the emperor, especially in Spain, where they all failed.”

But it was his own fault.

He did not like to delegate, and therefore the men he promoted under his command tended to be those who carried out his orders with precision, rather than men with their own minds. The weakness was central to the failure of the empire, for Bonaparte used his marshals and generals not only to command distant armies, which he could not supervise in detail, but to govern provinces and kingdoms, run embassies, put down rebellions, and deal with all of the crises that, from time to time, swept across territories of nearly eighty million souls.

If you’re hiring men and women who, while they can carry out instructions lack a general ability to think, what makes you think your results will be different?

In Napoleon: A Life is “the magisterial historian Paul Johnson offers a vivid look at the life of the strategist, general, and dictator who conquered much of Europe.”

Epictetus on How to Live and the Ability to Choose


The Enchiridion (“The Manual”) is a short read on stoic advice for living. Epictetus’ practical precepts might change your life.

What’s in our control and what’s not

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

What disturbs us

Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. … When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles. An uninstructed person will lay the fault of his own bad condition upon others.

How to be happy

Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.

Epictetus, like Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl, believed in the fundamental ability to choose how you respond.

Sickness is a hindrance to the body, but not to your ability to choose, unless that is your choice. Lameness is a hindrance to the leg, but not to your ability to choose. Say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, then you will see such obstacles as hindrances to something else, but not to yourself.

What to do when someone provokes you

Remember, that not he who gives ill language or a blow insults, but the principle which represents these things as insulting. When, therefore, anyone provokes you, be assured that it is your own opinion which provokes you.

If a person gave your body to any stranger he met on his way, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in handing over your own mind to be confused and mystified by anyone who happens to verbally attack you?

When you become familiar with something…

Like an ape, you mimic all you see, and one thing after another is sure to please you, but is out of favor as soon as it becomes familiar. For you have never entered upon anything considerately, nor after having viewed the whole matter on all sides, or made any scrutiny into it, but rashly, and with a cold inclination.

Silence is golden

Be for the most part silent, or speak merely what is necessary, and in few words.

When you hear of someone speaking ill of you

If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: “He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.”

On decision making:

Deliberate much before saying or doing anything, for you will not have the power of recalling what has been said or done.

On Speaking:

Attempt on every occasion to provide for nothing so much as that which is safe: for silence is safer than speaking. And omit speaking whatever is without sense and reason.

How to live free from sorrow:

If you wish to live a life free from sorrow, think of what is going to happen as if it had already happened.

Before deciding if someone is acting ill

… unless you perfectly understand the principle from which anyone acts, how should you know if he acts ill?

The Enchiridion is well worth a read.