Are novels a waste of time in today’s data-driven world?

Good novels give us the opportunity to connect with lives different from our own and thus develop the muscles of our imaginations, writes Deborah Williams

I can’t remember when I didn’t know how to read. It must have been a struggle, because I know I struggled to learn French and Latin, back when I was young and my brain was flexible enough to learn new things. Then, years later, when I attempted to learn Arabic, I was reminded of why they say old dogs can’t learn new tricks: my brain simply couldn’t handle another language. Learning to read reminds me a bit of learning to ride a bike, albeit without the danger of skinned knees. You wrestle to decode those mysterious marks on the page just as you struggle to keep your balance on two wheels. You despair that you’ll ever get the hang of it. And then suddenly it all clicks, and there you are, gliding effortlessly along the pavement – or the page. When I studied Arabic I never got to the gliding stage; I didn’t get much past “kitab” and “bab.”

But perhaps I should say e-kitab, given the pervasiveness of e-readers? I e-read reluctantly. I prefer the heft and solidity of actual books, which to me are touchstones, repositories of memory. I can’t imagine rereading an e-book, for example, but when my older son was reading Frank Herbert’s Dune, I read along with him in the battered paperback edition I’ve had since my grandfather bought it for me in an airport bookstore when I was about 11. The book reminds me of that moment, that place. It’s hard to imagine my Kindle ever evoking anything other than “low battery”.

As I read Dune this time, though, I also saw in my mind’s eye the vastness of the Empty Quarter and Herbert’s saga of a desert people dreaming of a greener landscape brought to mind Abu Dhabi’s cityscape, where black water hoses curl like beneficent snakes around the base of every tree and every flower bed. In the act of rereading, my past and present merged with the words on the page.

When I ask my students what they see in their minds as they read, however, I am increasingly met with blank stares. Many of my students grew up without reading much fiction; one student told me that his teachers told him novels were “a waste of time.” Increasingly, it seems, that’s the attitude that pervades education systems around the world: the “Common Core” curriculum being adopted in the US, for instance, lists more non-fiction than fiction as required reading, and uses an algorithm to quantify the “complexity” of fiction – with the result that The Hunger Games gets deemed more complex than The Sun Also Rises.

What will happen to our powers of imagination if non-fiction takes priority in primary and secondary schools? Are novels a “waste of time” because they don’t contain practical information that can be easily quantified? It seems to me that we live in a world that is complex and ambiguous, and where emotions frequently ride roughshod over intellect. Where better to find the tools to manage the complexity and nuance of the modern world if not by immersing ourselves in stories that resist easy answers and simplistic resolutions? Good novels give us the opportunity to connect with lives different from our own and thus develop the muscles of our imaginations. Without strong, flexible imaginations, we go through life as if we’re riding bikes with flat tyres. We can get where we’re going, but it’s a lot more difficult.

My friends tease me about my belief in the power of fiction to change lives, but I am nevertheless always on the lookout for fellow believers. Happily, I found some like-minded people at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair last week, in the Book Salon hosted by the Sea of Culture Foundation, which is under the patronage of Sheikha Rowda bint Mohammed bin Khaled Al Nahyan. The Sheikha has said that she hopes the Foundation’s Book Salon will “instil a passion for literature, the arts and knowledge in the UAE”. I was lucky enough to be included in the list of writers who spoke at the Book Salon’s English-language sessions, hosted by Sheikha Shaikha bint Mohammed bin Khalid Al Nahyan. As one of the speakers, I got to share ideas and conversation with a lively and varied audience – people for whom fiction is clearly not a “waste of time”.

The Book Salon won’t change people’s opinions overnight but sharing and celebrating the power of fiction seems like an important step. Now if the schools would just follow suit …

Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi. Her novel The Time Locket (written as Deborah Quinn) is now available on Amazon

Published: May 8, 2014 04:00 AM


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