I had one of those interesting days today, at least, in the ancient Chinese curse sense. In part, anyway. It’s the start of national book week here in Oz, and, I may be trifle biased but a love of reading is greatest gift we can give to children, to the future.
Now, for me, crowds are a hardship. I am very sound and movement sensitive, maybe because I am kind of proof of this whole evolution thing, as in I’m a little primitive. Both little and primitive, that is. Being an urban-dweller requires coping well with a sea of noise and movement, ignoring most of it, and shutting out peripheral stimulus. Your little hunter-gatherer who does this ends up either very hungry, or very dead, or, mostly, both. I was raised in hunter-gatherer tradition, and there’s a lot of it my family history, in my genes, I suspect. I guess I am one of yesterday’s people, to the modern world. But I still have to live in it, a little.
A lot of people in the same place is for me a sensory hardship, and exhausting. SF cons were always something, mostly, I did as a duty, as part of my job, as much as spell-checking or editing are. On the edges of these, when I got to meet and talk with like minds in small groups was a pleasure… but the entire event: something I found stressful and exhausting. I did it for my career (which it has very little impact on, but I didn’t know that) and for the readers who said they really wanted to meet me. I went, I did my best to provide good value and entertainment, to be a low hassle and reasonable value guest. But it was something of ‘oh don’ throw me in dat ole briar patch’ when David Gerrold was urging punishment of those evil sad puppies by not inviting them to Cons and taking them off ToC’s of that vast and lucrative anthology and short fiction market (oh, wait)… It was a piece of petty spite for most of us, which sort of missed its target, and instead reduced the financial viability of already struggling cons and mags and anthos by cutting their draw. That’s wokesterism for you: shortsighted and self-centered in the extreme – ergo: ‘get woke, go broke’. It’s essentially a form of narcissism – the wokesters personal interests trump everything else. Unfortunately for them no-one makes everything else accept this. They want laws to make it thus. That still won’t work.
Anyway: Book week, and I got asked to come to the local school to come and read aloud to 4 groups of kids for 15 minutes apiece. That was natural enough: CHANGELING’S ISLAND sold a copy to more than 10% of the local population (calculating on 4 people reading each paper copy, and you get to about everyone who reads), and seeing as it is about characters they identify with, it has been very popular. (The book was a finalist both in fantasy and YA categories in the Dragon Awards – up against Sir Terry Pratchett and Larry Correia. No, I was never going to win, but it was great being there. It wasn’t just popular here.)
As I said: large groups of people really aren’t my thing.
I’d rather muck out the chicken-coop.
BUT… I really believe that the best gift I can give to kids is a chance to discover the magic that is books. There is a little self-interest here: if everyone got bored with reading tomorrow, I’d sell no books… and I would also have nothing to read. But really, it’s a long term view: it’s not about me.
It’s not about my books either – just like Mad Genius Club is not about me or selling my books. Hey, I’m pleased if I get a spin-off: but honestly it’s the worst ROI I could make of my time if that was what it was about. It’s the sort of inverse of wokesterism. A rising tide lifts all boats – even the boats of people that I disagree with, whose books I wouldn’t wipe my butt on. The FIRST AND FOREMOST point is to make books something they WANT to read, to pick up and to find that magic, that delight, those worlds inside the pages.
Once you have them wanting to read, then it becomes, if you like, a contest among authors for what exactly they choose to read: and – if you’re wise you want the best pleasing to win. And there again… there is sort of an obligatory pay-forward for honorable writers: you should be working hard for them to leave that choice wanting to read more. It’s, obviously, a win if ‘more’ is more by you. But important part is that they want to read more. Once you start saying ‘but only the right kind of book’ – you’re guaranteeing that some won’t want to read anything at all. And that is a loss, not just for you, but for the future of reading – and thus writing, and for the future as a whole. You have to be some of short-sighted narcissist asshole to make it not about reading, but about WHAT they read.
Now ‘asshole’ I achieve occasionally. A step up for me, you might say. But I try to avoid ‘short-sighted narcissist’ because we have plenty without my help. So I said: Okay I will come and read… as long as I get to choose what I read. They said ‘No problem’ (they do know me well enough. And the kids groups are accompanied by a teacher.)
They assumed I’d read some of my work. I didn’t. I read Ogden Nash. And Yeats. And Kipling. And ‘Why Paddy is not at work, today.’ I chose those because I know my audience, there was something for them to identify with in each – a little stretch at times, but they’d get them. I knew they’d like those, that I could do them well, and they probably wouldn’t know them.
And I put in everything I could give: every bit of expression, humor, pathos, all the intensity I could give. I’ve been practicing for weeks. I’m no Sir Tony Robinson, but I gave it my best.
The kids laughed –at the right places, and were still, and listened. They overstayed breaking for lunch to hear the end – when offered the choice.
And maybe, just maybe, I got the love of books into at least one kid. And maybe re-enforced it in others.
That, after all, is a rising tide. That’s what efforts like ‘Book Week’ should be about. A rising tide to float ALL boats. Inevitably the short sighted narcissists will try and take this over too, with agendas, and wokesterism and making it about their pet causes de jour… and limiting reading to that instead of competing for that interest (because, short-term, just like cheating in a once prestigious award – they get a personal benefit without having to be as good or work as hard or appeal to as many readers. Like everything they infiltrate and turn, it becomes worthless). That will damage this, just as they do to everything they touch.
Resist. Work on popular, work on making the reader happy – even if your personal agenda is not served in the short term. We don’t want reading (or writing) to get woke and go broke. We want generations of eager bookworms – no matter what they read.