I often wonder how many college students read fiction if not for the purpose of writing a course paper.
Many students would claim that the sheer amount of work from their classes and jobs do not leave them any time to read for “pleasure.” However, reading a great work of fiction is invaluable for reasons other than pleasure, especially for college students.
Supporters of the recently approved undergraduate diversity requirement at UCLA say that, “Universities have a responsibility to prepare students for life in a multicultural world,” and that “understanding the perspectives of others is a core competency.”
However, students at UCLA mostly read informative, nonfiction books and articles for their classes. In order to truly understand the perspectives of others different from us, we need something more than knowledge alone. We need compassion, empathy and desire to engage in social discourse.
Contrary to nonfiction books, fiction books are cherished for their form as a narrative art, which employs literary locution, syntax and its plot in a way that allows new perspectives to settle in. According to Jacques Rancière, a French philosopher and social activist, fiction is valuable “due to a new balance of the powers of language, to a new way language can act by causing something to be seen and heard. Literature … is a new system of identification.” Thus, reading great works of fiction turns the reader into a conscious agent of world transformation by bringing to the fore the unseen and unheard.
Still, many students may argue that the collegiate life is not for immersing oneself in books of imagination. I understand that capitalistic blood courses through every vein of our society, and institutions of higher education are not immune to the plight. Hence, students often harbor a misconception that the main purpose of attending a university is to find a good job that will entitle them to the highest salary.
However, the very first Western university, the Academy, founded by Plato circa 387 B.C., had little interest in finding jobs for its students, if at all. Its goal was to enrich its students in their insights and moral judgment. The recent approval of the undergraduate diversity requirement testifies to the fact that UCLA also has interest in its students broadening their moral landscape.
As a library and information science student here at UCLA, I love reading fiction, especially the great works of literature. Since starting a graduate program a couple of years ago, I had a new challenge of finding time to read books for my personal intellectual growth and yes, for pleasure. My tentative solution was to join a book club, and it was just the right catalyst to read at least one work of fiction every month. Unbeknownst to many, every branch of the Los Angeles Public Library – 73 in total – hosts monthly book club meetings.
For me, participating in such a book club has been an immensely satisfactory experience and has been beneficial to my education, enabling me to widen my perspective and think critically about social issues.
During the summer, the book club hosted by the Westwood Branch Library had its members read “Please Look after Mom” by Kyung-Sook Shin, a Korean author, “The Native Son” by Richard Wright, a black author and “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy, Man Booker-prize-winning Indian author. These readings served as an impetus to discuss important social issues from different cultures. We conversed about persistent gender inequality in Asian countries, the ongoing racial tensions in America in the wake of the tragedies of Michael Brown and Sandra Bland and the cruel injustice of the caste system in India, just to name a few.
According to Martha Nussbaum, an American philosopher, “Literature makes us better citizens because it trains us to understand others. Narrative imagination is an essential preparation for moral interaction.” I cannot agree more with her statement.
While at UCLA, if you wish to supplement your education by reading more fiction but have difficulty finding time to do so, how about joining one of these book clubs in local libraries?
During the days following the events involving Michael Brown and Sandra Bland, popular social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter were in full swing with shares and likes. For me, I read Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” trying to fathom this injustice from every possible direction. It is our responsibility, we the privileged students of UCLA, to be more aware of social issues, to broaden our tolerance towards people different from us and to be just a little bit kinder to strangers. Reading great fiction will help us just do that.
Cho is a graduate student in the Department of Information Studies.
By Richard Cho