On the shoulders of giants

With our awards for speaking about being on the shouldrs of giantsLast year, I wrote about winning the ACT Rostrum New Speaker of the Year award with my speech on the topic of Silence. I was delighted when, this year, my son entered the new speaker competition and won the award.

It did, however, mean that we had to speak in competition last night, on the topic of On the shoulders of giants. Well a picture’s worth a thousand words – and there’s the outcome: William took home the New Speaker award, and I took the plate for the 2017 Speaker of the Year.

If you’d like to read the 1000+ words I delivered on the topic – about how reading fiction lifts us to the shoulders of giants because stories are awesome and the human brain is amazing – here they are:

Let me tell you about a giant.

“Every afternoon, as they were coming from school, the children used to go and play in the Giant’s garden.”

It was so lovely it made them happy, but when the giant returned after a seven-year absence, he was not happy to find them there.

“’What are you doing here?’ he cried in a very gruff voice, and the children ran away.

‘My own garden is my own garden,’ said the Giant; ‘anyone can understand that, and I will allow nobody to play in it but myself.’

So he built a high wall all round it, and put up a notice-board.


He was a very selfish Giant.”

It’s easy enough to be selfish – our own things are ours, whether they are gardens or books or ideas. But to stand on the shoulders of giants means we must share ideas, because it is the knowledge and understanding gained by those who have gone before us, which lifts us to the level of a giant’s shoulders and allows us to see further, and clearer, than we otherwise would.

The story I began to tell you, The Selfish Giant, is one of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales. I thought, in speaking on the subject of being on the shoulders of giants, I would begin with a literal giant, written by a literary giant, to consider how the metaphorical giant of the great body of literature raises us up, so we can see further, and understand how to be better human beings.

I have read The Selfish Giant many times – and each time, even though I know the fate of the giant, it reduces me to tears.

How can Oscar Wilde, dead for almost 117 years, make me cry?

I know I’ll find the giant under his shroud of blossoms, at the end.

How can any story or poem, especially the ones I am familiar with, make me cry? I know that love will end, friends will betray, lives will be lost. I know that the dog will die.

It’s no surprise.

If we come right down to it, all of these stories are just strangely shaped black squiggles on a white page. What gives them such power?

We usually speak about seeing further from the shoulders of giants in relation to science. And science can help us understand the power of reading fiction. Research into the human brain says we’re primed for language, but not for reading.

So, it’s a slow process, the initial decoding of the letter shapes, and the sounds, progressing to recognising whole words, and the brain making the connection between the spoken word and the written one. But, if you’re lucky enough not to struggle with reading, if you ‘get it’ and become a fluent reader, with a good vocabulary, something extraordinary happens in your brain.

Your eyes see squiggles, but your brain comprehends not just the word, but the meaning, sometimes the multiple meanings, and the implications, and the images and the ideas.

You fall.

You are immersed in the story.

Your perception literally changes – MRI studies indicate that the parts of the brain used for spatial placement and physical activity are activated when you read – in other words, you know you are sitting on the couch with a book, but at the same time your brain perceives that you are in the drawing room at Longbourn, that you are on the battlements of Minas Tirith, that you are being chased in the dark on your way home from your school’s Halloween pageant.

So the act of reading about something stimulates the same neurological regions as doing that thing. Stop and think about that for a moment.

Think about the things that you will never do, would never be able to do, whether it is catch the golden snitch so your Quidditch team can win, or fight yourself free of slavers on a brig off the coast of Scotland with the assistance of a Jacobite rebel, and realise that reading lets your brain feel as if it has done those things.

Reading puts you in another person’s shoes. It lets you perceive the world through the eyes of someone who is not like you. To feel what they feel. Not just figuratively – science tells us this is happening at a biological level.

You might be thinking, so what?

What difference does that make?

That gift, that opportunity for empathy, is the moment where you are lifted, beyond yourself, and put on the giant’s shoulder.

Theory of mind is a psychology term for being able to understand that you have beliefs, desires and intentions, and that others also have them, and that theirs’ may be different to your own. Someone with a strong theory of mind has greater empathy, and is more compassionate, more likely to volunteer in their community, and more tolerant of diversity. It’s someone who can see over the walls that we build around ourselves – the selfish walls that we think will protect what is ours, but which only lead to misery.

Reading fiction develops your theory of mind. Fiction gives you greater empathy because it lets you see the world through another’s eyes.

Yes, it can make you cry – but it’s worth it.

I am not, and I will never be, a man, a king, and a hero.

But when I read the words Tennyson’s gave Ulysses:

It little profits that an idle king, by this still hearth, among these barren crags, Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole unequal laws unto a savage race, That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me”, I do know him – I understand his longing, his melancholy, and his frustration.

I will never be a 19th century Russian landowner, but how can I read Tolstoy’s description of Levin looking at Kitty, in Anna Karenina, and not be affected by his love: “He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.”

I am not a selfish giant. Oscar Wilde’s tale cautions us against selfishness, against walling ourselves off from others. We only have to look around us, at the world today, to see the danger of building walls – the danger of being selfish, and having no empathy.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Jane Smiley, described the job and ambition of a writer as being to develop a theory of how it feels to be alive.

By sharing their theories, writers allow us to go beyond our personal walls – to use the books we read to build a ladder to reach the shoulders of giants. With them, we can develop a theory of mind from many different viewpoints – male and female, black and white, rich and poor, young and old.

Oscar Wilde also said we are all of us in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Reading helps us develop our understanding of others, our empathy for them. It helps us be less selfish. Reading lets us climb out of that gutter, and onto the shoulders of giants.

And as a passionate reader, I tell you, it’s from the shoulders of giants that you get the very best view of the stars.