Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

If literature doesn’t fire your imagination, try non-fiction

Maryam Ismail ponders the benefits of reading fiction.

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In her article on these pages, Are novels a waste of time in today’s data-driven world?(May 8), Deborah Lindsay Williams wrote that without literature, there would’t be much opportunity to “develop the muscles of our imagination”.

I would have believed her had I not spent several hours at the 1001 Muslim Inventions exhibition in Sharjah last month. There I witnessed what happens when you ponder the universe, in awe of the creator, and follow the words of the Prophet Mohammed: “Seek knowledge even if you have to go as far as China.”

These scholars read the works of the ancients and, through inquiry and imagination, they made the world anew.

If they had read just stories and fanciful tales, perhaps they would have dreamed up the television and the smartphone – but these inventions may have remained locked inside a novel and not acted upon in real life. When we read fiction, are we really exercising our mind muscles or passively witnessing how it’s done as if it were a video on YouTube? Some might feel that it’s better to just mimic others instead of building one’s own imaginations.

I do agree with Ms Williams that the “Common Core” curriculum that is being passed off in the US as the next best thing in education may not serve students well. Its aim is really to toughen up students who have been coddled for much too long. Many have been reading literature way below their level in reading programmes such as “Success for All” and get-ready-quick schemes like “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top”. None of these has worked; with many children still reading below grade level in 2013. Since each of these programmes has focused on reading mostly fiction, perhaps it’s time to try something new: non-fiction.

One might claim that this is an era of exhausted imaginations. Fiction can provide the reader with more than imagination; it gives them a view into other worlds. It is a vessel of values, cultures and social ­mores. I read fiction because I want a cheap ticket to a new world. There, like a fuzzy spider hanging in the corner of the ceiling, I am privy to daily lives of people different to me.

I read The Yacoubian Building, a novel by Alaa Al Aswany, solely because the US diplomat Cynthia Schneider spoke about it as being the “real deal” on everyday life in Egypt. Having had a decades-long connection with Egypt, I found ­Aswany’s depiction of Cairo, horrendously unrecognisable. I also found it quite scary that US policymakers would use this novel a basis for their foreign policy.

So, I think the question should be reframed: what is the benefit of reading from someone else’s imagination? Reading fiction might seem dangerous in a narrow, singular, relativistic, globalised curriculum. To the writers of the Common Core, students are better off living in a black-and-white twilight zone, where every­one understands everything the same way. In this case, imaginations where readers see themselves in another world greatly different from their own and try to recreate it in a totally different milieu, may have disastrous results.

One example is the Arab Spring. There we have seen what happens when one people decide to borrow from the history of another. As if taken from the pages of the literary imagination of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, we find that after Egyptian protesters dismantled the Mubarak regime, they protested again to ­remove Mubarak’s successor ­Mohamed Morsi, and they are now back to page one. People who had read more history may have come up with a better way.

There is a Muslim prayer, Oh Allah, prevent us from knowledge without benefit. The meaning is to not wile away the time reading for entertainment when there are more important matters, such as memorising the Quran or learning more about I­slam, or reading Al Fazari’s Compendium on Mechanics in search of possible solutions to climate change or the delivery of potable water.

When it comes to fiction versus non-fiction, perhaps it’s time to take a dive into works such as The Islamic Conquest of Syria by Al Imam Al Waqidi, Steve Le Vine’s Putin’s Labyrinth about the rise of Vladimir Putin, or MJ Akbar’s autobiographical Blood Brothers. These titles might better serve students’ need for books that are beneficial and enable ample brain aerobics to help them imagine a better future.

Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE

Updated: June 14, 2014 04:00 AM

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