On Saturday, December 1st, I went to see a CT Forum event at the Bushnell in Hartford. It featured a panel of speakers being interviewed and engaged in a conversation about the night’s topic, Vision & Brilliance. John Dankosky of WNPR moderated the conversation between Neil deGrasse Tyson, Neri Oxman, and Neil Gaiman. Lydia Callis, the talented sign language interpreter featured in many of Mayor Bloomberg’s press conferences (interviewed on CNN, parodied on SNL), was onstage and was completely mesmerizing as she signed the speakers’ words.
The night was fantastic, the people on stage were really smart, really funny and really weird – I loved them all. I got to see Richard Sugarman spend half his introductory speech watching Lydia Callis interpret physically the words coming out of his mouth. I got to see Neri Oxman, a designer and Mediated Matter Director at MIT Media Lab, shred a silk handkerchief with her fingers, in a demonstration of things both iron strong AND fragile soft. And I got to hear Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about how human bodies are crazy because the entertainment centers are built next to the sewage plants.
But the thing that impacted me the most was hearing Neil Gaiman express the importance of staring out the window and letting your mind wander (he told a story of a science fiction conference in China, where they were learning how to daydream). Daydreaming, making up stories, being bored – all those things contribute to letting your mind forge new paths of imagination – and imagination is so utterly important. It leads to discovery and invention, sparks new ideas and opens new worlds for us.
I’ve read a good amount of Neil Gaiman’s works – it’s almost physical how you feel the meandering thought in his books. He isn’t afraid to go down strange paths of ideas in stories; reading him can be like calisthenics for your mind.
Books of Neil Gaiman’s that have taken me on a wonderful mental journey include:
Coraline – a story of a girl who finds a secret world where things are very, very similar to her own, but the differences are frightening. This was made into a movie in 2009 – I’ve seen bits of the movie, but read the whole book. It’s a juvenile/young young adult book, though kind of spooky.
American Gods – this novel is an exploration of the various mythological creatures created by man and imported to America by immigrants who came here and believed in them. It talks about a coming storm between the old gods – Odin, Anubis, Anansi – and the new ones – media, celebrity, drugs. A man is released from prison, and is taken on a road trip by Mr. Wednesday – he eventually encounters these old gods and is sucked into the fight for their very existence. It’s fun to try and figure out which mythological creature is behind the moniker, and made me want to learn more about religious and mythological icons.
Anansi Boys – this is kind of a sequel/spinoff from American Gods. It follows the grown son of Anansi (Mr. Nancy) after he finds out his father is dead and that he, in fact, has a brother, who also was unaware of his father’s death. Like American Gods, there is humor and magic, layers of story and emotion… it’s a wonderful tale about family and humanity.
Neverwhere (listened to this as a book on CD narrated by Neil himself – it was fantastic, in every sense of the word) A man rescues a street kid, only to find himself ignored by the rest of the world he once knew. To get back to his ‘real’ life, he explores the underbelly of London. I really enjoyed the playfulness of Neverwhere, which shone through even in its darkest moments, and listening to the author narrate the story was a special bonus. (I also watched the BBC TV series – it was not as good as the book; I just learned that the TV series was done first, then Gaiman wrote the book as a novelization and expansion of the TV show…huh. Well, well done, Gaiman.)
One thing the panelists kept talking about was the fact that we humans don’t create in a vacuum – we build “upon the shoulders of giants”… we build upon others’ ideas and take things a little further. And to me, the beauty of coming into the library and walking through the stacks of books is that you get to see what others have done, have written about, have experienced, and then build on that, go from there, incorporate ideas from different interests and come up with something completely your own.
AND — being inspired doesn’t necessarily mean fantasy… you can be inspired, taken on a mental journey, have your mind expanded by a short story, a picture book, a biography, a book on the history of a baseball team, whatever. Just let your mind go, and follow it a few steps behind – don’t scare it, don’t stop it, go with it. Check out this article on the huge benefit to reading for pleasure (or if you must have a silly acronym, FVR – for Free Voluntary Reading).
So tell me, where do you look in a library for inspiration?