Neil Gaiman is one of those authors whose fiction has a distinct style. You can point to something he wrote and say with confidence, Neil Gaiman wrote that. It’s in the names he chooses, the subjects he writes about, the stories he weaves, and the language he uses as the strands to do so. After having read and loved many of his novels (Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book, Anansi Boys, and Stardust are some of these), and hearing his incredible speech titled Make Good Art, I was very excited to read his book of collected non-fiction, The View from the Cheap Seats.
The book is comprised of magazine articles, essays, speeches for various occasions, and book introductions which are grouped together in an order that generally flows from subject to subject. Some pieces are short, others are quite long, and some of them seem to overlap each other slightly. He writes about everything from his own fiction, authors he admires, his career in comic book writing, the internet, music, films, mythology, and his childhood.
Beginning with the dedication – “For Ash, who’s new, for when he is grown. These were some of the things your father loved and said and cared about and believed, a long time ago.” – I loved this book. It is filled with the wisdom and insights of a man who has dedicated his life to telling stories. From a young boy reading his way through the children’s section of the library, to the young man who discovered and devoured the science fiction genre and comic books, to the young journalist, to the comic book writer and finally the award-winning novelist he is today. This book is all at once a reader’s guide to great fiction, a quasi-memoir, a conversation about what makes a book great, but most of all it is a love letter to story telling and literature. Neil Gaiman is one of the great authors of our time (in my opinion), and getting to see the inside of his brain in this book was such a treat.
Right off the bat we are confronted with discussions about the importance of literacy, libraries, and the freedom to read whatever you feel compelled to read. Reading teaches you how to think, it exercises your imagination, and it teaches us that anything is possible. According to Neil, a child should never be forbidden to read a book, even if it is not necessarily what you want them to be reading. He says every book is a gateway drug into the next book, and eventually they will probably stumble onto things you do feel more comfortable with, while all along learning about themselves and the world.
I loved his discussions about what makes a genre a genre, and another piece on what the difference is between a children’s book and a book for adults. He comes at these questions from a place of pure curiosity, taking the questions down to their fundamentals and building up from there. Truly, what is the difference between a book for children and a book for adults? It is not easy to point to one criteria that makes the difference, is it?
There is a good chunk in the middle of the book to do with comics; how he read and collected them as a kid to his eventual career writing them, working with different artists, as well as reviews and introductions for them. I myself have never read comics or graphic novels at all, and while this was not my favorite section of the book, I still feel like I came away from it having learned a lot about them, and harboring a new curiosity to find one of the ones discussed to see what I might think of it.
Neil, like me (and you, I presume), is a lover of fiction. He shares the names of works and writers who have inspired him, books that helped shape him, and the stories of how he came upon them in the first place. His introductions offer new perspectives on works you may have read before, and have definitely sparked my interest in some books I’ve never heard of. His recommendations span throughout many genres including children’s, science fiction, horror, and classics so you’re bound to find something you’ll love as well as something that may be out of your comfort zone.
The one thing that surprised me the most about this collection was how much Neil Gaiman has done. He has been involved with magazines, newspapers, collaboration fiction, short stories, children’s books, novels, comics, as well as being the speaker at any number of conventions and events, he’s been asked to write about books in all different types of genres, as well as writing for music albums, film scripts, and essays. What hasn’t the man done? He has a curious mind, and is a true believer in art and creativity. He understands the impact one good book can have on a person, and more importantly, he wants everyone to be able to feel that incredible feeling.
If I’ve come away from this book with only one thing, it’s that I love Neil Gaiman. I already knew it, but I saw so many more facets of the man through this book, and it’s made me love him all the more. I highly recommend it for any reader.