County Life: Practicing Empathy through Reading

Bessie’s Books and Other Things

Empathy is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, or as the old saying goes, “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

Why is empathy important?  Without it, we think that everyone else’s experiences are just like ours.  My husband finally understood the cautiousness that comes with being a woman when I paused to check the back seat of my car when approaching it in a dark parking lot one night.  His personal safety is never at stake in his mind and he conducts himself with that belief, seeing it through my experience made him more attuned to my needs and more understanding of my fear.

Many recent studies indicate that reading fiction actually does increase our empathy.   Reading Between the Lines: the Benefits of Reading for Pleasure from the University of Liverpool’s Centre for Research into Reading, Literature, and Society concludes: “With just 30 minutes of reading a week, as many as two thirds of readers (64%) reported a better understanding of other people’s feelings versus less than half (48%) of non-readers.”

The research also suggests that fiction readers are even more empathetic.  Several books I have read in the last few years demonstrate the value of fiction in aiding me with empathy.

Various aspects of the human condition can be illustrated in fiction.  Reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett gives me some insight into the frustration of being a black maid in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi.  Spending time in a political prisoner’s solitary confinement cell in Burma, The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly, teaches me a history I wasn’t aware of and helps me confirm my commitment to freedom of expression.

For me history is often best learned through fiction, The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway taught me about the civil war in the former Yugoslavia and The Far Side of the Sky by Daniel Kalla taught me about the experiences of Jewish Refugees in Shanghai during World War II.

Different mental states than my own can be demonstrated in fiction.  Lottery by Patricia Wood features a main character with Down’s syndrome and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon has a main character on the Autism spectrum.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova helps me understand the terror of early onset Alzheimer’s and being powerless to stop it and Jojo Moyes’s Me before You explores the helplessness  of being wheelchair bound after an accident leaves one of the main characters a quadriplegic.

Although none of these situations, mind sets, or illnesses may ever happen to me, by reading about them I am better able to relate to the people around me and be more sensitive to what other people may need from me.  Empathy is especially important to those of us working in libraries because our mandate is to support people from cradle to grave including all socio-economic demographics.  Empathy goes a long way to ensuring that we are all equal as do public libraries.

*Originally published in County Life on March 12th, 2015.

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