I like coffee. I think I love it but, given the people who surround me here in Seattle, my coffee-affection pales in comparison. Whether coffee, tea or whiskey, the fun part is the mug, right?
Your dad’s favorite mug or a silly mug picked up while traveling can sure spice up the morning. There are funny mugs, cheesy mugs, “why did they print that?!” mugs and custom photo mugs. There are so many mugs, some are bound to go wrong.
In my book, this Beyonce mug has gone wrong. I HATE IT.
Why? Well, where shall I begin?
First off, Bey is great and all but she doesn’t have to do her laundry, go grocery shopping or figure out how to shave her legs in a 100-year old bathtub.
Beyonce and her fellow successful celebrities (and even some unsuccessful ones) don’t have to deal with weird utility or insurance billing, call 1-800 numbers, or double check their bank balance before making a purchase.
I also imagine that they don’t decorate, coordinate gatherings, or lose their socks in the laundry they don’t do. So, each task you accomplish day in and day out, big or small, is still an accomplishment.
Sorry to be a pop culture grinch, but ladies are under enough pressure to “do it all”, they don’t need this smug mug reminder. The good news is that these mugs appear to be “currently unavailable”. Let’s hope it stays that way.
This September we enjoyed one of Western Washington’s many festivals that shine a light on the unique culture that has been cultivated here. There’s the Tulip Festival in Burlington, the Lavender Festival in Sequim, Oktoberfest in Leavenworth, Salmon Days in Issaquah and our destination: The Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend.
3 days where boat nerds gather with beer gardens, maritime talks, gussied up boats on display, tall ships gliding by and a wooden boat building competition. It draws people with a deep passion for boats and their friends who didn’t know there were so many kinds of boats but like beer.
Soon after arriving, I saw the pleasing lines of a petite, spruced-up sailboat. Her white hull was partially obscured by scaffolding and signage. Unlike the other vessels, this boat held a place of honor, situated on a trailer in the very center of the festival grounds. Named Felicity Ann, she deserved to take center stage with a future almost as interesting as her past.
Built 68 years ago, Felicity Ann is a 23-foot long wooden sailboat originally named Pied Piper (I think Felicity Ann suits much better). Felicity Ann was Ann Davison’s vessel during her historic solo crossing of the Atlantic in 1953. Think of Ann Davison as sailing’s Amelia Earhart but keep in mind, Earhart’s craft of choice was 25′ longer than Davison’s and never made contact with the water.
Ann Davison b. 1914 Set sail from Plymouth, England on May 18, 1952 Began Atlantic passage from the Canary Islands on November 20, 1952 Arrived in Dominica on January 23, 1953, after 65 days at sea Her journey is detailed in the autobiography My Ship is So Small
Felicity Ann not only represents a milestone for women, it also represents the potential of collaboration. In this case, the collaboration of the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building (NWSWBB) and the Community Boat Project.
Credit is also due to an Alaskan owner who revived the boat from obscurity and began a partial restoration. NWSWBB and the Community Boat Project’s inspiring partnership continued his efforts and brought her to the Wooden Boat Festival for a fitting, post-restoration debut.
But Felicity Ann‘s voyage is not yet done. She will be sailed as an on-the-water training platform focused on empowering women, youth and other members of the community. Pretty damn cool.
My bookshelf houses the accounts of several other pioneering female sailors:
M. Wylie Blanchett, a widow who cruised the rugged British Columbia coast each summer with her children aboard a 25-foot vessel as early as 1927.
Naomi James who in 1977 at age twenty-nine, sailed single-handedly around the world via Cape Horn and did it faster than the original record holder, Sir Francis Chichester.
Tania Aebi who at eighteen, chose a 26′ sailboat over college and learned not only how to sail but who she was, all while becoming the youngest solo-circumnavigator at the time.
Her experience inspired Laura Dekker, who entered the records books in 2010 and remains the youngest person to sail around the world solo. I was exceptionally inspired by her humility and focus after our lunch together. In addition to her book, the documentary about her trip called Maidentrip is a great watch for ladies, and lads, of all ages.
But, Ann Davison was a new name to me. I’m so glad I’ve learned about her story and met Felicity Ann.
See Felicity Ann‘s new website here. She didn’t have that in 1953!
Learn about the Northwest School of Wooden Boat Building here.
I could see the towering ice, imagine the unrelenting cold and felt in awe of the Arctic. Yet, the whole time I was sitting at my corner desk, tucked beneath the window and looking out on some of Seattle’s darkest and rainiest days.
Although it was tricky to track some of these adventurous souls down, I am very grateful to Dario Schwöerer, Harry Stern, Mark Schrader, Michael Johnson and Guirec Soudée took for the time to speak with me. What does this group of various ages, experience-level and nationalities have in common? Crewing aboard one of the 193 vessels to have ever transited the Northwest Passage.
Thank you also to Victor Wejer, recent recipient of the OCC Award of Merit, who helped provide such up-to-date transit data (how many vessels have completed the Northwest Passage, how many were sailboats, which way they transited, etc.) that to my knowledge, it has not been published anywhere else.
So, take a break from this latitude and head north, very far north, in my latest contribution to 48° North on page 30 of the February issue.
While I have sailed across the Pacific, I can’t imagine racing across it; let alone in a 55-foot high-performance custom race boat like Crossfire. Last month, I interviewed navigator Bruce Hedrick and boat manager Nigel Barron about Crossfire‘s 2016 Vic-Maui race and subsequent retirement.
The skills, logistics, and dedication required of both boat and crew to participate in a race such as Vic-Maui are impressive. By all accounts the resulting experience is one-of-a-kind and well worth the effort.
Bruce and Nigel’s extensive experience, natural comradery, and well-honed storytelling skills made this a great interview. Although I found their technical knowledge daunting, the core of this story is about good seamanship, teamwork, and instincts gained from years of sailing. I was also encouraged because, like many other sailors they agree, “there’s always more to learn.”
Last month, I had the opportunity to visit the Portland Yacht Club with 48° North Editor Joe Cline and interview the world’s youngest solo circumnavigator. Most sailors reaction: “Woah, cool.” Most non-sailors reaction: “What does that mean?”
It means the quiet and thoughtful 21-year old woman having lunch across the table from me traveled 36,000 nautical miles, approximately one and half times around the world, on a 4o-foot sailboat by herself. Oh, and she did most of it between the ages of 14 and 16.
From misunderstanding peers to lawsuits, boat refits to breakdowns, fierce storms to great loneliness, Laura Dekker experienced more in her first sixteen years than many do in a lifetime. Age is an abstract concept when speaking with Laura. I can imagine many describe her as an “old soul.” Knowing what I was like at ages 14, 16, and even 21 makes what she has accomplished even more impressive and thought-provoking.
Regardless of the age of her soul, Laura is an incredibly unique person with a broad horizon of possibilities ahead of her. As she continues to travel, sail and occasionally speak, she shares her unconventional upbringing aboard boats, experiences exploring the world, and perhaps most importantly, her time spent alone with the ocean.
I completed my first long-distance sailing trip last year across the Pacific Ocean (Laura has sailed across twice!) and some days, as I go about my life here in Seattle it’s hard to imagine I did that and experienced such a different way of life. Laura remembers her trip with vivid detail but she is selective in the interviews and presentations she gives because it is her trip, her experience, and only the beginning of an adventurous life.
I sincerely appreciate Laura taking the time to have lunch and a long conversation with myself and Joe. It was entertaining, enlightening, and she’s a damn good sailor. Read my Q&A with Laura Dekker in the November issue of 48° North here, page 22.
For sailors and non-sailors alike check out Maidentrip, a documentary that follows Laura’s journey during her record-breaking solo circumnavigation.
I am quite exhausted and sore but also very content. Since disembarking the ferry, we spent two nights at the house where my friends are caretakers. They affectionately call it “Dougland” and it is a mesmerizing place indeed. A fairly well-established homestead, it is just across the Wrangell Narrows from Petersburg and accessible by a small fishing boat, everyone calls them skiffs here.
“Dougland” is “well-established” as it has plumbed water in the main house, off-the-grid electricity, and a grand piano. We’re still not sure how they got that there. The main house is a snug log cabin filled with books, antiques, photos from Doug’s fascinatung lifetime, and many tributes to Alaska and classical music. It is so filled and layered that two days wasn’t enough to observe and process what we were surrounded by. And that’s only the main house!
Also on the property is a net house (used as a workshop and filled to the brim), a woodshed, a hobbit-esque sauna, a smoke house, a tower that houses the electrical and water systems, a gazebo with a Nordic style row boat stored in it, a guest cabin, and a partially built wooden rowboat museum. I enjoyed several rainy walks poking around all these structures and the garden. A creek runs behind the main house as well so we had waterfront views on every side.
Monday, our first full day in Petersburg, Ali and I stayed at the house with another friend, Cat, while everyone else headed into town on errands. As tends to happen at weddings when there are large gatherings, a mish-mash of people, and some wonky logistics, both failure and hilarity ensued.
Our task was dishes and dinner. And while that may sound easy enough, I have learned that nothing is simple on a homestead.
Admitted city-slickers, Ali and I were suppose to be supervised by Cat, an experienced farmer who had been staying in “Dougland” longer. However, while she was away on a phone call we managed to pick chard instead of rhubarb (Now I know the difference!), terrorized a garden bed for potatoes, cut my finger (it’s official, I need knife prep lessons), and caused a fireball to leap out and singe Ali’s arm hair while trying to light the old-school propane oven. No one was (seriously) harmed in the process except the poor chard plant but eventually we ate that too.
By the end of the day we had some successes though! Once we were directed to the actual rhubarb we made a rhubarb/apple/berry cobbler with an oat crumble on top. The potatoes, carrots, and turnips from the garden were roasted with onions and garlic. A fresh salad was concocted and the sockeye salmon was grilled. With some extra help we made dinner for 11, laughing and learning along the way.
But that isn’t the real reason I’m exhausted. The bride-to-be wanted to keep things simple for her bachelorette and have a ladies night at a nearby USFS cabin. Ok, no problem, sounds fun.
However, my body is accustomed to the demands of a desk and city and this backpacking adventure was definitely out of my element. The good news is I have a stubborn streak. After a half mile of uphill scrambling with my pack on and unused muscles expressing their opposition, it kicked in and I only thought about the satisfaction reaching the top.
4.1 miles in total, the hike to Raven’s Roost include 2 steep miles uphill in the lush, damp, and muddy rainforest. Our first reward was lunch at a look out where we could see the Wrangell Narrows, the creek by “Dougland” and some small islands called the Sockeyes. Some of the other ladies began gathering Hedgehog mushrooms and showed us how to identify them. We also learned about the various names for winter chantrelles and how to tell when Chicken-of-the-woods is too woody.
We also took turns lugging a 3-gallon gas can for the stove. It was especially tricky at times with all the slippery surfaces but these Alaskan ladies are tough and seem to have unlimited energy. My stubborn streak kicked into high gear again. Slowly but steadily I continued to climb at the back of the group.
After lunch, the trail was a little more level with some ups and downs as we crossed the Muskeg (peat bog) and occasionally wound into the forest. Parts of the trail weren’t in good condition though and without soil and roots to replace the boards, we had to cross large muddy gaps and puddles. Anyone wearing Xtra Tuffs, the signature Alaskan rubber boot, easily charged ahead. My hiking boots were tall enough in some spots but at others I tiptoed around with various levels of success.
After crossing this rugged, moist terrain we saw the cabin appear over a hill. Almost there! The views were definitely worth it and the cabin was sparse but comfortable. The final moment of torture though, was learning there were gallons of fuel stored in the cabin and our leaky, heavy jerry can was not needed.
By dark, all the ladies had arrived, 11 in total. With the extra bodies and the Nordic stove was humming along it was warm and time for dinner. We made mac and cheese on the stove top. Cooked up more garden veggies (chard included!) and threw in the hedgehog mushrooms.
Cozy in our cabin, overlooking Mitkof and Kupreanof island, we sipped wine and shared stories. We toasted our dear friend who brought such a wonderful, interesting, and strong group of women together in this beautiful, remote place.
So, tired and sore I may be, but getting to share this experience and conquer that trail is more than content, it’s exhilarating.
We are nearing Petersburg after an evening of winding our way through the Wrangell Natrows. I purchased a wonderful, waterproof map of the Inside Passage and Southeast Alaska. I must have pulled it out and poured over it 10 times today! It also includes stories and unique landmarks such as “Your map maker built a cabin here.”
My book, “Gumboot Girls” (look it up!) has provided an interesting narrative to compliment the wild scenery and remote communities we pass. Wrangell, our last stop, is about the same size as Petersburg. Quiet on a Sunday evening, the presence of fishing and port activities were apparent. There was a small hotel, a handful of shops and a tour company, closed for the day or perhaps the season. Placed in a protected nook among the islands and weaving waterways, Wrangell gave me some idea of what to expect in Petersburg and the surrounding community.
We played cards with a fellow traveller this afternoon, Roy who is relocating from Arkansas. He gave us advice that Ali and I will never forget, all I can say is: 3 + 4=7, E=MC2, you have 4 fingers to read between the lines, stay in reality, atoms are made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons. They move just barely slower than the speed of light. Now we know. Thanks Ron!
Packing up our bags and stowing away our sleeping gear reminded me that this is only the first part of the adventure. So much more know and unknown lays ashore. I am so glad I took the time for this ferry ride. Going forward, I hope to find more unique ways to travel to go with the interesting places I plan to visit.
After our bags were packed I snapped a silly picture of our two, now bare, lounge chairs. Ali admitted she did the same. One of the most comfortable and beautiful places I’ve spent the night on a boat. Until next time, lounge chairs.
I have brushed my teeth in a lot of places. In all the bathrooms where I’ve lived, of course. I’ve also brushed them in parking lots, restaurants, hostels, hotels, trains, airports, campsites, friend’s houses, boy’s houses, sailboats, and most recently a 418-foot ferry to Alaska.
Boats add a unique element of rolling movement to your teeth brushing and typically offer limited water resources. It is just as refreshing and essential to brush your teeth aboard, though. And while the ferry is not at full capacity, I’m sure the other passengers and my travel partner do appreciate my efforts.
Our accommodations on board are simply divine, but I can understand if not everyone thinks so. Instead of a (expensive and boring) cabin, we are sleeping on plastic lounge chairs in the solarium. Although not as grand as its name, the solarium brings beauty and practicality together. The beauty is from the passing scenery and fresh air flowing from the open aft (back) deck. The practicality is provided by its shelter and simplocity.
Tucked behind the upper decks, the solarium is protected on three sides, with a ceiling made up of hearty glass panels you can see the moon and stars through. The port and starboard walls are also made of these panels, letting the light and views stream through.
Our set up is a cross between camping and staying at a hostel. Our lounge chairs are surround by bags while we hunker down in layers, sandwiched between colorful sleeping pads and equally colorful sleeping bags.
The other passengers have varied setups, some similar to ours, others just a blanket or a whole tent. Those with a cabin or sleeping indoors come and enjoy the solarium for a time. When we first departed Bellingham, 90 degree temperatures on shore made the first few hours simply delightful on deck and every chair was filled.
Some travelers are eager to socialize, but I find myself polite at best, instead content with relaxing and catching up with my friend’s sister who I will be adventuring with all week.
Our dreams of a beer on the boat during sunset were shattered when we learned all the AMH cocktail lounges were shuttered last year. “An essential budgetary reduction” the bureacrats said. “An end to a long standing tradition essential for the traveling community”, bartenders responded. I agree with the latter and will blame my anti-social-ness on that.
Perhaps it’s hypocritical but I do enjoy listening to the other passengers converse. They take turns, sharing their destination, the objective of this trip, and their experiences in Alaska. More apparent than at the airport is the distinction between the tourists and those moving, who have either very little or quite a lot packed on board.
Roy, for example, is from Arkansas. He’s 64 and missing several front teeth with weathered skin and an appreciation for the simple life. After a lifetime spent in the backwoods of Arkansas, he’s heading to carve out a new life while he can. I’m learning that’s what retirement means for a lot of folks.
Roy is starting in Juneau but isnt sure where he’ll end up. He’d like to find a community, maybe trade his truck for a boat. He plans to take photos of nature and locals along the way. Roy is nice but lonely, which makes him more eager to chat than I. I wish him the best as he journeys forward and am sure he’ll find a good community up here.
“What’s next for you?” Roy asks, “Down in the 48?”
Without hesitation I say, “Oh, my life in Seattle.” A world away from here and unimaginable to him, where I have a job, a community, and a home.
We have 32 more hours to go and I’m still enthralled with enjoying this long-awaited journey.
For the last couple of evenings, I have focused on reclaiming, reorganizing my life and personal work. Basically, I cleaned my desk.
However, when I clean my desk, drawers, and that one overflowing shelf, I rediscover a collection of thoughts, ideas, and memories. Some head straight into the recycling bin, others catch my attention.
Tonight, I found a printout of the following lecture by Neil Gaiman, an imaginative author and storyteller, that he delivered for the U.K. charity The Reading Agency in 2013.
When I found this lecture again, and I’m not sure how I first came across it, I paused my paper-shuffling and did exactly what Gaiman calls for, I read. And while you can watch/listen to the full video, I encourage taking the opportunity to read about reading.
“It’s important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of member’s interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.
And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I’m an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about thirty years I have been earning my living though my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.
So I’m biased as a writer.
But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British Citizen.
And I’m here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.
And it’s that change, and that act of reading that I’m here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.
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 about asking what percentage of ten and eleven 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.
And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.
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. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a postliterate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words 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.
I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was R. L Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.
It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness.
There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is the gateway drug to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.
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.
We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy.
(Also do not do what this author did when his eleven year old daughter was into R. L. Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen King’s CARRIE, saying if you liked those you’ll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years, and still glares at me when Stephen King’s name is mentioned.)
And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.
Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.
You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:
THE WORLD DOESN’T HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS. THINGS CAN BE DIFFERENT.
I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved of Science Fiction & 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.
Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.
Discontent is a good thing: people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.
And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.
If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.
As J. R. R. Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.
Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books.
I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.
They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less and more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight year old.
But Libraries 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.
I worry that here in the 21st Century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a word in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to fundamentally miss the point.
I think it has to do with nature of information.
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. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.
Libraries are places that people go for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before – books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, a place that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.
I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, over twenty 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. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.
A library is a place that is a repository of, and gives every citizen equal access to, information. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.
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.
Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are, quite literally, stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.
According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the “only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account”.
Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce. And while politicians blame the other party for these results, the truth is, we need to teach our children to read and to enjoy reading.
We need libraries. We need books. We need literate citizens.
I do not care – I do not believe it matters – whether these books are paper, or digital, whether you are reading on a scroll or scrolling on a screen. The content is the important thing.
But a book is also the content, and that’s important.
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.
I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us – as readers, as writers, as citizens: we have obligations. I thought I’d try and spell out some of these obligations here.
I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.
We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.
We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.
We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.
We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children to read that we would not want to read ourselves.
We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we’ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.
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.
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.
Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things. They daydreamed, they pondered, they made things that didn’t quite work, they described things that didn’t yet exist to people who laughed at them.
And then, in time, they succeeded. Political movements, personal movements, all began with people imagining another way of existing.
We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Don’t leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.
We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.
Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.
The new year didn’t truly set in for me until mid-January. I’m a little behind, I guess!
At the beginning of January my latest profile for 48° North, Dan Hopkins: The Wiring Whisperer, appeared in the January issue of the print magazine. A retired electrician and experienced liveaboard, Dan is a “guiding light” in his community helping new liveaboards safely update their electrical systems and install heat this winter.
It was such a pleasure speaking with Dan, his wife Irene, and the appreciative neighbors he has helped. I learned so much about marine electrical, boat ownership, and the camaraderie of the boating community.
Mid-January was an especially exciting time; I began a new job! My big present this holiday season was being offered, and enthusiastically accepting, the position of Marketing and Advertising Coordinator with GeekWire, an online tech and business publication based in Seattle.
My transition kept me on my toes. I left my previous job one Friday and reported for duty at my new job the next Monday, the time has been flying ever since! In addition to working with members, assisting with events, coordinating advertising and more, I curate two weekly posts, GeekWire Calendar Picks and GeekWork Picks.
Lastly, this new year has brought an exciting new phase for a publication I’ve worked closely with for several years now. 48° North launched a new website with even more great content for the NW sailing community. Congratulations to the team at 48° North!