Manal Ismail speaks with students and professors about the impact of literature on today's youth

When was the last time you opened a book? And we're not talking about your calculus textbook - a real book, which has given you insight into the world? For many university students, it's been a while, perhaps as far back as their freshman year in high school.

Literature has had a major impact on the development of society. It has shaped civilisations, changed political systems and exposed injustice. Literature gives us a detailed preview of human experiences, allowing us to connect on basic levels of desire and emotion.

However, just as it has constructed societies, the writings and works of certain authors have degraded societies to their most primitive form.

The UAE is only 36 years old. In a country that is still undergoing rapid development, the potential impact of literature is indubitable. An educated youth, which holds the future of the nation in their hands, has the power to influence change.

"The foundation of every state is the education of its youth," said Kevin Nawn, assistant professor of English at the American University in Dubai. "The youth should be educated in the great ideas of not only its own culture and time, but other cultures and times as well."

But what is today's youth reading? Are they reading at all? Notes spoke to university students and professors about the importance of literature for the young generation. While most students agreed that literature is crucial for the advancement of society, many could not name a book they recently read.

The importance of literature
"By reading narratives, we can empathise and understand others," said Judith Caesar, English professor at the American University of Sharjah (AUS). "Literature is thought provoking; it allows us to raise questions and gives us a deeper understanding of issues and situations."

Caesar emphasised literature's role in allowing its readers to grasp the meaning of human conflict.

"In an era of modern media, such as television and movies, people are misled into thinking that every question or problem has its quick answer or solution," she said. "However, literature confirms the real complexity of human experience."
Students also recognised literature's role in influencing human thought.

"Literature provides insight into the minds of other human beings, into the mind of the author and the minds of the character he or she brings to life," said Sophie Chamas, international studies student at AUS.

"It provides one with the opportunity to further one's education to continuously learn new things and be exposed to a plethora of ideas."

Students and professors said that the disregard for literature is a main component of ignorance and constituents like stereotypes, judgements and preconceived notions about different people and cultures.

"Literature is the study of human nature. We see human nature through tragedy and romance, joy and sorrow, in epiphanies and denial, in moments of heroism and in moments of cowardice," said Sa'ad Farooqi, an English literature major at AUS.

"Literature teaches us to analyse a character, allows us to reach inside his or her mind so we see what drives a character, what shapes his or her beliefs and how one relates to others."

Today's youth realises the true depth of human emotion and behaviour. They understand that there is more to a person than what they display on the exterior.

They see the intricacy of human experience, giving them an open mind and an open heart. However, today's youth can only reach this point of enlightenment through seeking knowledge - by being well read and cultured individuals.

"We can only analyse a character once we understand and look beyond the obvious," Farooqi said. "We learn not to judge a character based on appearances because more than any other field of study, literature openly acknowledges the unreliable nature of appearances."

Literature also allows us to question some of our most prominent beliefs and examine our lives, giving them deeper meaning.

Farooqi used the book Siddhartha by Herman Hesse as an example of how literature works to expand our minds and give us a greater understanding of the world.

"When confronted with such works, we automatically question our beliefs, values, morality and the infinite," he said.

But are students reading?
So the significance of literature has been confirmed, both over time and human understanding. However, despite student awareness of the importance of literature, is today's youth seeking that deeper level of knowledge?

According to professors, student response is promising.
"We have around 50 or 60 students in the literature major," said William Haney, professor of literature and head of the English Department at AUS.

"Students are intrigued by the works of art and drama, they love to read plays and investigate contemporary works. These kids are smart."

Caesar also said that she was surprised by how much students showed interest in the field. However in today's fast-paced lifestyle, students said that the youth today have a thirst for quick satisfaction - perhaps because of the popular indulgence in technology.

"We are at an age of 'videoacy' rather than 'literacy,'" Haney said. "It doesn't matter how they deliver their messages, people need different channels to express themselves. You can look at film as an alternative form of literature."

Nevertheless, the impact of technology on youth is unquestionable. These new forms of expression give students a quick and convenient method of both expressing themselves and seeking information.

"Students are definitely more familiar with films," Caesar said. "With access to movies and information on the computer, students have the convenience of acquiring information at the click of a button."

It's a busy world
Many students attributed the lack of interest in literature to a lack of patience. Most said that out of their circle of friends, half of them pick up a book.

"It's a busy world and it's getting even busier with time," said M. Raj, foundation student at Middlesex University.

"We barely have time for ourselves, how can we have time to sit down and read? Because of this lack of time and impatience, students look to other forms of knowledge and communication, something that will quickly provide them with the information they need."

Raj said that while a book may take a month to finish, a movie could convey the same message in just two hours. However, what students don't see is that these 'quick fixes' may not be providing them with the full and accurate message.

"One of literature's main qualities is that it is open to interpretation," Caesar said. "These modern media forms don't begin to show you the complexity of other people."

However, Caesar said that the rapid emergence of new technology would not lead to the elimination of literature.

"People won't stop reading because they're watching films," she said. "Both satisfy the need for a narrative. The two rather overlap. For example, reading a novel and then watching the film may help understand the reading better."

Farooqi, for example, is an avid reader. She reads about two books a month and hopes to make her own short story collection.

"I like works that shed light on human relationships and challenge the common beliefs of people," she said. "I really enjoy surreal works with magical realism or works that delve into the chaotic nature of human beings by bringing out the grey areas of our psyche and our world."

"I read almost everyday, during a break or before I go to sleep," said Ala'a Al Fadil from AUS. "I also always keep a small notebook in my bag in case I suddenly feel inspired and have the urge to write something. Once an idea develops, I write it out as a full fledged piece."

So yes, despite the common stereotypes, today's youth does read.

Literature - as a major and a career?
Asked what his major was, Fahd Mahmoud said, "finance." He sighed and added, "I wish I could say I was a literature major. There are so many things I want to learn and study other than vocational subjects. I would definitely be a literature major if I could."

But his university, the University of Wollongong in Dubai, does not carry the programme. Perhaps this perceived illiteracy among today's generation could partly be attributed to the lack of dedication to literature programmes in universities.

AUS is one of the very few universities that have courses in literature and a dedicated major to the field.

However, the study of all humanities and social sciences, with literature included, is vital to the success of any educated individual. Haney draws a practical example where the study of social sciences works as a fundamental asset in other fields.

"In the US, if you're planning to be a doctor you're required to take certain humanity courses to learn how to interact with your patients," Haney said. "Otherwise you might end up treating your patients like machines."

Many students have the misconception that a degree in literature doesn't hold a promising future.

"I enjoy reading but I wouldn't pursue it as a major," said Jerin Mathew, business student at the London School of Economics in Dubai. "I don't think it would give me many career choices down the line."

Other students said they would study literature, but as a minor or after obtaining a degree in another field first.

"I would like to study literature, but later on," said Jasmine Talreja, banking and finance student from the London School of Economics in Dubai. "I first want to get a degree in a more stable field to secure my future, as getting a job with a degree in literature is fairly difficult."

However, professors said that graduates with a degree in literature have plenty of opportunities in their careers. Not only does literature improve your understanding of others and communication skills, both characteristics sought after in the workplace, but it also presents you with many promising careers.

"A degree in literature can get you into journalism and broadcasting or teaching," Haney said. "It can also work as a compliment to a degree in business or as a step towards studying law."

Farooqi changed his major to literature during his final year in university after studying electrical engineering the previous three years.

"I felt it was my true calling," he said. "To me the purpose of life is to grow. Grow and become better people, better listeners and to connect better with those around us. No other field can teach us this better than literature."

With inputs from Rania Al Hussaini, Notes Deputy Editor and Maysam Ali, Notes Staff Reporter