Discovering worlds outside our own – the importance of reading and imagination to both adults and children

We are all encouraged to read from an early age. Even before we really know what they mean, we sit in our parents’ laps and try to follow the words they recite to us from our brightly illustrated books. Reading is a natural part of our make-up; as an expression of the understanding of language, it is crucial to our ability to function in the social structures we have created in the western world and beyond. It is a life skill, and helps us to understand and interact with our environment.

Yet it also does so much more. When we open a book, it takes us into a different world, sparking our curiosity and fuelling our imaginations. We are then taught to channel the results of this combustion into our own writing, as a form of creative play that aids us in developing our problem-solving skills, sense of self and many other attributes, less quantifiable but just as important.

As a child, these were activities I loved. I always had a vivid imagination – not for me the toy cars and model trains, miniature imitations of an adult’s world. I could see that world around me, and it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. So I lost myself in tales of hungry giants and enormous crocodiles, witches and aliens, magic bicycles and silver space elephants. I would tell anyone who cared to listen that, when I grew up, I was going to be an author. My parents and teachers saw this as a Good Thing, commendable behaviour for a young boy.

Time went by, and I eventually progressed from primary school to secondary school. Lessons became more serious: homework, deadlines, exams. It became more obvious that we were meant to know certain facts by certain points in time. Questions in class were discouraged unless directly relevant to the topic at hand. While creativity was still nurtured in some classes, it existed now within more rigid boundaries, and had to fulfil a specific aim once complete. Curiosity and imagination took second place, eclipsed by the looming shadow of the Real World for which we had to prepare.

Outside of school, too, we were expected to be growing up. I remember early in the first year of secondary school being asked by one of my new friends whether I was still “in the toy phase”. I didn’t know how to respond. In the end I gave a non-committal answer, but inside I was reeling at the idea that toys were meant to be “just a phase”, and moreover one that I was expected to be growing out of. Yet the pressure to fit in is an amazing motivator, and it wasn’t long before my robots and monsters were packed away in cupboards, gathering dust.

I still read, but it became more something I did in my spare time; a hobby of my own choosing, rather than part of my education and overall development as a human being. I cannot recall whether I wrote, in a creative sense. Gradually, I came to accept that the more imaginative part of my psyche was not a stable basis for my future. When the time came to choose subjects for our final school exams, the thought of including Music in my programme barely crossed my mind, despite having played violin and guitar for years. I was not alone in my decision.

As the years went by, this downward spiral continued. At university – that blissful period where one has access to the pleasures of the adult world but is not yet burdened by its responsibilities – I played in a band, but we never saw it as an opportunity to become professional musicians. We always knew our ways were going to part before too long. My reading time was mainly taken up by books required for my course, and otherwise by familiar authors and genres that wouldn’t tax my brain too much. By the time I moved to Berlin and began work as a translator, I was far more interested in exploring the wonders of my new city than writing or singing about them.

And so it continued, until eventually my creative output became something close to nil. I barely even read anymore; there were that many words flowing through my head in the course of a day’s work that I scarcely wanted anything to do with them by the time I got home. Instead of books, my shelves started to fill with DVD box sets, which required much less active thought to enjoy.

Then, about two years ago, I realised my brain was stagnating. My job was satisfying enough, especially since I had turned freelance and gained my freedom from the restraints of corporate hierarchy, but my imagination also needed fulfilment. So I made the conscious decision to read more, and with more variety. I read outside my comfort zone, and was astonished at what I found: all these places, all these people’s imaginations I had been missing out on! I travelled to strange island communities half the world away, slid into the depths of the seedy Glasgow underground and mourned the fates of Gods whose worshippers had long since forgotten them.

By the time I travelled to South America at the end of 2012, my mind was open once more. I felt truly able to appreciate the stunning scenery, the wildly different culture and customs. During our journey, my friend and I wrote song parodying our experiences – something I hadn’t done for a long time. And by the time I returned, one thing was clear in my mind: I needed to write.

So I began this blog, as a basis for all my worldly musings. I discovered and began to write for Slow Travel Berlin, and by the end of the year had been published in the website’s first book. I also began to play in a band again, which re-ignited my desire to write music. Suddenly, my life felt much more fulfilled and balanced. This year, I’m taking things a step further, finally realising my childhood dream by starting to write fiction (more of which at a later date). The five-year-old Roald Dahl fan in me couldn’t be happier.

When I look back now at those fallow years, I feel a sense of regret that I neglected a key part of my personality for so long. It is almost as if there were a black hole in my timeline, where nothing of value happened. I don’t mean to say I was unhappy – I had some great times with some amazing people – but in hindsight it has become clear that, on some level, I wasn’t being true to myself.

It is such a shame that society steers us away from fulfilling our creative potential. Without human imagination, there would be nothing in the world to enjoy, nor would our society be anywhere close to as advanced as it is now. Yet its value is so difficult to quantify in empirical – and thus monetary – terms. It is not seen as an essential asset in the results-driven system we have created.

But nothing ever stands still, and we are already seeing signs that the system no longer works as well as it once did. To find alternatives, to adapt to a new situation – arguably our defining ability as human beings – we will need creativity. We will need libraries, music clubs and art lessons. We will need to read. And we will need all of this not just as children, but at every stage of life. Because if we lose our ability to imagine worlds beyond our own, the world we live in will run us into the ground.

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