“Why do you fill your head with such nonsense?”

by Nicole Jean-Louis

Sometimes you get the notion that if you aren’t reading a book on ‘How to cure cancer’ or ‘10 ways to become rich’, you are seen as an idle dreamer; bombarding your brain with a completely false idea about life. To a lot of people, reading fiction can be seen as a waste of time. From the nicely tied endings to the immersion of a fantasy that resembles nothing like reality, non-readers struggle to comprehend the benefits of engaging in an activity that could be used to “educate ourselves with things that matter”.

Don’t be misled, that is a very good reason and one I agree with. However, the superior stance they maintain towards fiction readers is almost derogatory. The conviction from which I write this (albeit some may view it as a minor), stemmed from my own experience which began in the waiting room of the Doctor’s office.

It was an overcast day and narrow beams of sunlight penetrated through the dark clouds and into the waiting room. We all sat there in silence, critical of the second hand on the clock, quite convinced it was lingering for an extra minute. However, the painstaking boredom which arises from simply waiting was quelled the moment I opened my novel.

I could go into how reading one sentence teleported me to the stories of my characters, who were tasked with saving a world at risk of destruction, or how the rough yet smooth texture of the page felt natural as it brushed my fingertips or even the warmth that seeped into my subconscious, suggesting I was happy and at ease, but alas, I won’t.

Demystify the idea that reading fiction is a waste of time

Anyway, my time finally arrived to enter the medical adviser’s office and my novel came  – I didn’t want to appear as if I was showing off, but I genuinely had no clue where to put it. He sat there, told me to sit down, and before my examination furrowed his brow at my book. With his almost crab-like fingers he lunged and pinched it, with not so much as a word.

Line by line his eyes traveled down the blurb, glazed with confusion and bewilderment at the content of it and finally with a face contorted with a sense of conviction, pink lips pursed with a sense of disdain, he said to me “why do you fill your head with such nonsense?”. If there is one question that echoes profusely in my mind it is this one and honestly, I think I read more just to spite him.

I am aware that I am privileged enough to know how to read and have the ability to buy books when a lot of people don’t. However, this article is simply to demystify the idea that reading fiction is a waste of time and just because someone says you shouldn’t, doesn’t mean you have to listen.

Live vicariously through your character

Reading fiction has a number of benefits; such as increasing one’s ability to feel empathy and maybe you may not be faced with the world’s imminent destruction (although as of writing this, there are still four months left of 2020), most times you read, you can live vicariously through your character, engaging in a cathartic experience.

To add on, Kidd and Castano’s 2013 study on empathy and fiction found that it helped weaken one’s prejudices and stereotypes as well as improving your literacy. At home in Kenya, the youth female literacy rate was 52% in 2015, bestowing responsibility on those who can read to further their own literacy and try to help others.

Lastly, I am a great advocate for varying your reading choices, fiction or nonfiction, blogs or newspapers, biographies or comics. However, what I am not an advocate for, is deciding what form of reading is better than the other. Reading for the sake of impressing your colleagues, friends, and family with the title of what you’re reading rather than something that interests you, is now a waste of time.

Perhaps I am utterly biased when it comes to fiction, as through reading I’ve been able to travel to the streets of Berlin, experience the heart of Lagos, and find eggs during the siege of Leningrad. This is possibly the reason why I deny its supposed ‘lack of value’. Nevertheless, I truly believe that if a novel allows you to travel and understand different people or cultures whilst eliciting enjoyment, cannot be a waste of time and is definitely not “filling your head with nonsense”.

My name is Nicole Jean-Louis, studying BSc Education Studies at the University of Bristol. I am proudly Kenyan and really enjoy reading as well as any sport that involves a ball. This piece was extremely cathartic to write as it happened the exact way I described it and now, a year later, I can finally make peace with that experience.

The image shows a black teenage girl reading a book. Photo credit: iStockphoto