I was invited to deliver a speech at Prizegiving at my sons’ school last weekend, in front of all the pupils, their parents and the staff. It’s about my job, literacy and the power of reading. The full text of it goes as follows.
I’m going to talk to you today about the most boring subject in the world. It’s so boring, some of you might fall asleep. In fact it’s so boring, some of you might even die of boredom. Right at the start of the summer holidays, too. Sorry.
The subject I’m going to talk about is reading.
I know. Books. Ugh. Yawwwn.
As the headmaster has just told you in his introduction, I am a writer. I write books for a living. I’ve done it since I left university, which was, ahem, ten years ago.
My wife said you wouldn’t fall for that. It was in fact more like twenty-five years ago.
Every morning I go to my office, sit on my bum, make stuff up and write it down. I do this with a ridiculously minuscule dog on one side of me and on the other side a cat that snores – very loudly.
My commute to work is long and arduous. It can sometimes take me as much as ten whole seconds. Longer than that if there’s a traffic jam on the stairs.
Why do I write books? One reason is that publishers pay me to, and getting paid is a good reason to do anything. Well, almost anything. Not everything. If someone offered you money to jump out of a plane without a parachute – I wouldn’t. Same goes for eating worms.
Another reason I write books is that people buy the books I write. That means I can afford to feed the ridiculously minuscule dog and snoring cat. Oh, and myself and my family too.
I don’t earn quite as much as that J.K. Rowling. I hear she’s done pretty well for herself.
Nor am I a household name. You know, like Cillit Bang and Toilet Duck.
But I can work in my pyjamas if I feel like it.
The main reason I write, though, is that I am a reader. I always have been. When I was young I would usually be found with my nose in a book or a comic or a magazine. Mind you, that was back in the dark ages when we didn’t have video games or a gazillion television channels or the internet. We had to make our own entertainment, and reading was it – when we weren’t blowing up Airfix kits with firecrackers, that is, or riding our bikes into the river, or jumping out of windows into trees, all the safe, sane, sensible things like that.
Stories were – and still are – a gateway to other worlds for me. They could transport me into the past or the future, to places that never existed, into lives that weren’t my own.
I soon realised this truth. You can take a book anywhere, and a book can take you anywhere.
And I grew up thinking that maybe I would like to do that myself some day: write stories of my own that could take other people to other places, places that I had created.
I also had an ambition to be a multimillionaire pop star, but somehow that didn’t work out. Nothing to do with a complete lack of musical talent, I’m sure. Not that that’s stopped One Direction.
So I wrote my first novel when I was 22, it was published, and I’ve done nothing much else since then apart from writing. A few odd jobs here and there. I’ve been a cartoonist. I’ve set cryptic crosswords for newspapers. I’ve worked in a bar. But mostly I’ve sat on my bum, made stuff up and written it down.
There are people who think I don’t actually do any work, that all I do all day is mess around on my computer. One of those people is in this very room. I won’t tell you who he is, so as not to embarrass him. But it’s one of my sons. I won’t say which one, because that wouldn’t be fair. He knows who he is. Theo.
And yes, sometimes, to the untrained eye, it might well look as if I’m scrolling through Facebook, or checking my email, or maybe staring out of the window. Actually, I probably am. When I’m not doing that, though, I’m exploring an alien planet, I’m chasing clues to catch a murderer, I’m fighting ancient gods, I’m fending off vampires, I’m doing kung fu. Anything I like.
I’m being a soldier, a detective, a superhero, a zombie hunter, an adventuresome kid. All of the things I can’t be in real life.
I’m using my imagination.
Imagination is the greatest power any of us possesses. I started developing mine when I was your age. Imagination is a muscle, and books are the gym.
With imagination, you can not only think up anything you like, you can become anything you like.
I don’t mean just in books. In life. Your imagination could make you a brilliant scientist, a superb chef, a wonderful painter, a clever doctor, an inspiring teacher – or for that matter a crazy teacher. Like that one in the audience over there, you know the one I mean.
You need an education to do those jobs, you need to learn the basic skills of the trade, but what you really, really need is imagination. Imagination will help you do things differently, with originality, in a way that no one else can. Imagination will make you stand out from the crowd, and reading fuels imagination.
It doesn’t matter what you read. Fiction. Non-fiction. Comics. Fantasy. Love stories. Whatever.
Just. Read. Something.
And I’m not saying you should give up TV or YouTube or video games or your iPad. Absolutely not. I have an iPad and I love it. It’s with me all the time. And mine is cooler than yours because it’s got a Spider-Man case.
But none of those pastimes – TV, YouTube, video games – is a substitute for picking up a book and becoming engrossed in the characters and the plot and the whole inventive adventure of it. Also, you can’t look at your iPad in the bath, whereas you can look at a book in the bath, because it doesn’t matter if you drop the book in the water, but it does if you drop your iPad in the water. Believe me, I’ve done it. A very expensive mistake. A book dries out and is still usable. An iPad, not so much.
Read, and you’ll not only enjoy yourself, you’ll be exercising your imagination. You’ll be expanding your mind, widening your future, improving your prospects.
You’ll also be helping keep people like me in business – people who sit on their bums, make stuff up and write it down.