10290453465_2d6ede3cf0On Monday night Neil Gaiman delivered the second annual Reading Agency Lecture. Bookswarm’s Simon Appleby was there.

It was a real privilege to be able to hear Neil Gaiman on Monday. He’s long been a favourite author of mine, since I read (and re-read, and re-read) his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, in my early teens. I have since loved NeverwhereAmerican Gods, his Sandman graphic novels and more besides.

In the course of about 40 minutes, speaking to an invited audience at London’s Barbican, he ranged widely over the value of reading, the value of fiction in freeing the imagination and the future of physical books.

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.

He was adamant that all reading is good – there are no bad books for kids, he said. Anything that fosters a love of reading is a good book. I wholeheartedly agree, and remember with gratitude the range of titles my parents allowed me to consume (by the time I was 12 I was reading Tom Clancy, Jilly Cooper and Wilbur Smith!).

Of course, the lecture was about reading and libraries. Neil was passionate in defence of libraries as providing access to reading materials, skills and a love of reading. In one segment he said:

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.

How depressing is that? Sadly, while the school system is, and probably always will be, a political football, the wider reaches of literacy and access to reading are more of a political hot potato. That’s why we need passionate advocates like Neil Gaiman, charities like the Reading Agency, with whom Bookswarm is very proud to be associated, and a new climate of public discussion in this country about libraries, literacy and a love of reading. It would be great if this lecture could be the catalyst for that.

Read the full text on The Guardian’s website