Why We Need Books Now More Than Ever: Empathy and Reading

You might not know it if you read the daily news, but there is a case to be made that human civilization is becoming less violent. Seeing the decrease in violence requires a macroscopic view of things. Steven Pinker has thankfully gathered up the research and made the argument in his well-researched tome The Better Angels of Our Nature that violence is at its lowest point in all of human history.

Students in class reading with teacher helping (selective focus)

Students in class reading with teacher helping (selective focus)

Humans have a long way to go if we are to become something that can eventually be called a peaceful species, though. One of the ways we can closer, it turns out, is reading books. Pinker makes the point that reading in general is perspective-taking: To read a book is to strap on someone else’s consciousness and wear it for a while.

After books became accessible to the middle, and then lower classes (thanks to mass production via the printing press), and literacy spread to the poor and women, levels of empathy increased, as mapped by a decline in violence and changes in the ways people treated one another.

Often, after reading the thoughts of people very different from ourselves, we find similarities and develop empathy. Atticus Finch recommends that Scout do this in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Pinker’s research suggests that we, as readers, continue to do this if we want to develop into a more peaceful, compassionate society.

He means specifically reading books. Fiction included. Purposely picking narratives that will carry us into the minds of those people we know little about.

I was happy to hear the argument first from my Rutgers professor Doctor Fitter, an esteemed Shakespearian. One night in class, he offered the idea that empathy has been evolving. I have internalized it since then, and reaffirmed it through Pinker’s book: empathy has increased and so has tolerance, and literature plays a fundamental role in the process.

I can still remember how Dr. Fitter described in brutal detail a common street execution in 1590s England: citizens would join in on the fun, so to speak, as everyone gathered around to hold out an unlucky fellow’s arms so that an executioner’s knife could slice the shape of the cross and eviscerate him or her. This all happened before the drawing and quartering commenced. The citizens at the time viewed this as a great source of hilarity and entertainment, lacking the compassion we might offer today toward even a convicted murderer. (Almost half of the United States don’t allow any form of execution currently.)

Examples of a lack of empathy abound in Elizabethan England, including less ethical treatment of animals, such as the common practice of bear baiting (I won’t detail the grisly practice here, but Wikipedia will). Evidence of an inability to empathize only gets worse as you roll back the historical clock.

Bloodshed wasn’t once-removed as it is today, where our bloodlust is fulfilled through video games and movies. The bloodiness of the Roman games was a very real source of entertainment impossible without a lack of empathy toward particular Others (people of different religions, color, economic classes, criminal records, etc.). The creative and imaginative kinds of torture used during the Spanish Inquisition are not reconcilable with the kind of empathy commonly exhibited today toward people with different religions from our own.

Of course, history is turning again right now, and there seems to be a streak of xenophobia everywhere you look. This to me makes the importance of deliberate reading all the more urgent: To be longwinded, deliberate reading meaning a purposeful selection of stories that puts us into the minds of Others, going into them willingly with an open mind, and seeking to come out ourselves altered from the act of taking on another’s perspective.

In his book Radical Shakespeare, Dr. Fitter expounds upon some of the ways that Shakespeare developed empathy through his plays—juxtaposing gender, socioeconomic classes, race, and the cosmic hierarchy to produce advances in how Others might be perceived.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker goes beyond the particulars of any given geographic location or time period and focuses on pretty much all data accessible. His book is filled with graphs and charts, made palatable by his engaging and witty prose. Whether you agree with him or not, he makes a thorough, well-thought out argument—backed by plenty of data—that violence has gone down. And, that the very act of reading aids this decrease.

I taught a unit, inspired by Fitter’s lectures, about the evolution of empathy. Call me an optimist, but I agree with Fitter and Pinker and buy into the idea that we’ve made progress, both ethically and as regards empathy. This belief actually makes the injustices of today all the more glaring by way of our higher levels of sensitivity—consider that our own country is still trying to catch up to the promises it made in writing hundreds of years ago that all people should be treated equally (both legally and morally). We have such a long way to go that, on a microscopic scale, it can appear we’re not getting anywhere, and things are as horrible as ever when it comes to social justice in this world. But I do believe we can all play a part in progress simply by reading.

In order to gain knowledge, I started consuming a lot of non-fiction a few years ago. Eventually, I almost forgot the importance of reading fiction.

I became enamored with good, narrative non-fiction. Specifically, I became obsessed with stories about perseverance and resilience, where people were thrown into catastrophic situations, yet somehow came away stronger for having endured the worst. What I forgot was that the line between fiction and non-fiction is not so clear—in fact, I would argue that it’s very blurry. I might argue that the history textbook that omits a native American genocide might itself be a kind of fiction.

Take any powerful work of fiction. If it’s well-researched, or based on real life experience, you’ll be learning plenty of factual pieces of information, just like you would in non-fiction anyway. But you’ll also be dipping into someone else’s perspective—getting inside their skin and walking around in it. The long duration of a novel (as compared with modern micro-communications) means that you can’t help but come away slightly altered—slightly changed—by having stayed inside a fictional character’s thoughts for so long. You’ve become a bit more understanding of how another person feels or thinks. How the world treats them, and how they interact with the varying degrees of justice and empathy that are meted out by forces of power, such as government or a familial patriarch.

I was absolutely floored by To the Lighthouse when I first read it in graduate school. Forget Virginia Woolf’s incredible writing, for a moment: I was occupying the actual consciousness of a woman who had to deal with the bullying of her husband in a society that favored males. The stream-of-consciousness narration effortlessly flitted from Mrs. Ramsay’s perspective to that of her child who felt urges to kill his own father. I came away from the book having felt like I’d sort of lived another life. I’m convinced that reading good fiction might be the closest we come to living other lives. We can literally choose to take any Other’s perspective we want, no matter how different from our own. The act of doing so brings us closer to seeing the similarities in the differences that divide us all, which is essential to cultivating empathy.

Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man puts you inside the head of a black male who feels (and in most ways is) invisible to the society he lives in. For someone like me, this is essential reading. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart puts you inside the life of a person—a whole society—as it is consumed by the missionary work of colonialism.

I made a conscious decision to start dividing my reading choices—deliberately choosing half for pleasure, and half to develop my empathy and knowledge about other people (and animals). On my bookshelf right now are waiting to be read Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin and Ta Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. I recently finished The New Jim Crow.

I also have my fun reads—Over the Edge of the World, a story about Magellan, and In Cold Blood, a true crime classic. While I’ll probably learn as much from each as the next, I had to deliberately choose to read the first two to broaden my empathy and learn more about what I’m not exposed to in my own, daily, middle-class suburban microcosm of human experience.

There’s something very different between reading a textbook account of events and reading a narrative where you connect with to a character’s thoughts. You may learn similar sets of facts, but the textbook account doesn’t alter your empathy very much, if at all. Stepping into someone’s head and living out that same history has the potential to radically alter your view of the world, often toward greater empathy, knowledge and understanding.

Imagine that you read widely, and very multi-culturally, across many different subjects and genres. The end result is that you’ll have lived many different lives. They’ll all be brief (the amount of time it takes you to read a novel), but by today’s standards of micro-communications, the time invested in a book is astronomical. Just ask my students who hate to read, but actually read all day long, only via text messages or Tweets or Instagram posts. There’s something about the sustained focus required to read a novel that can’t be replicated by any other intake of information. The reason behind that might have to do with the idea that words are thoughts, and a narrative strings together enough thoughts in a cohesive manner to represent a sampling of consciousness. Literally, leave your life and your mind behind, and occupy someone else’s. When you return to your own, if the narrative you came from was powerful, it will be hard not to feel wiser and, hopefully, be more empathetic.

Imagine a future technology where you could take on someone’s consciousness. Two people from disparate parts of the world, or even the socioeconomic ladder of the same country, might suddenly empathize with each other. Would this create a Utopia? I have no idea. Maybe not at all. But a great deal of people would probably find it harder to be completely indifferent to someone else’s suffering simply because they are an Other.

I’ve taught my students about the cruelties of factory farming, and seen that the actual facts and images themselves can alone sometimes cause lifelong change in someone’s eating habits. This isn’t even human experience I’m sharing with them, but animal experience. Great mistreatment and suffering. But many people can still compartmentalize the brief ten-minute video of the atrocity that is standard factory farm procedure, and go home to their dogs and see nothing wrong with the irony when they assign different moral weights to different species. I bet that if there were such a thing as a gripping narrative that occupied the consciousness of a pig, and someone read a whole novel inside the pig’s head, they’d come out more empathetic toward pigs than after having seen a brief, bloody video. (Pigs do have consciousness and are actually listed in the top ten smartest animals on many intelligence ranking lists.) Clearly in ancient times, exposure to the suffering of others did little to increase empathy, as it happened all the time. If that alone caused an increase in empathy, society would have become much less violent much faster. It takes a long exposure to consciousness. Lucky us we have an endless supply of books, and an endless amount of people who vet them and categorize them for us.

When it comes to narratives about people, the task of teaching tolerance becomes much simpler, and much more a matter simply of choosing to read. Broadly and deeply. Richly and widely.

Perspective-taking through literature isn’t perfect, partly because it’s impossible to understand other people completely, due to language being a flawed form of communication. In other words, language ain’t telepathy—words represent signs, which share endless connotative meanings (Wikipedia Saussure for some interesting background on signs). Imagine then that the person you’re trying to understand (through comprehension of words) is far removed from your own personal life experience—the loss of understanding can become exponential. Thus, a long excursion into the mind is required: concise and truthful statements about the lives of Others we might want to develop empathy for won’t work alone; it takes sustained contact with their thoughts to grasp a narrative.

And, after all, everything’s a narrative, right? We ourselves are a narrative that we tell ourselves. A great mix of fiction and non-fiction, presented both to ourselves and to others. Narrative is the answer to the question “Who am I”? We are our story, we are our protagonist. Everyone is their own life story’s main character.

Reading is the best way to leave our own narrative, even if for a little while. Sure, escape can be had in other, easier ways, such as listening to music, or playing a video game, or vegging out on some Netflix. And so can increasing empathy through things such as traveling and activism. But reading is the only thing that is sustained exposure to our raw, primary stuff: thought. Word after word after word, a long string of thoughts, a long narrative, a great book. And do you believe it?—living extra lives is free! (Or at least no more than the cost of a few dollars in library late fees.)

What about speculative fiction, and the kind of narratives that look nothing like real life? Is there still the same value present as in the canonical works of fiction, or the great non-fiction books? This is where universality comes in—despite the narratives being spun in fantastically imagined universes, the characters still act according to human principles and deal with conflicts that we can relate to. All art is inspired by life, and telling a story is only possible by someone who has lived the human experience.

In an age where a million, easier and more instantly-gratifying activities compete for our time, reading becomes more essential than ever. Do we spend four hours watching TV and playing on our smartphone every night, or do we spend only a couple nights a week doing that, making sure to reserve time, just like we would for exercise, to read?

We can easily drop a book if we lose interest, change a genre if we’ve been feeding ourselves only True Crime or Mystery or Historical fiction. We can read the great books and search for books that will end up being great only to us. We can read a trashy romance novel one day and have a lot of fun, and then follow it up with some weighty volume of literary fiction that will foster deep and maddening introspection. But if we see our own empathy as a vehicle driven by perspective-taking, we can choose what we read with the deliberate intention of broadening our own compassion. This is a beautiful thing.

Granted, it doesn’t always work—someone can be closed-minded. If that’s the case, exposure to someone else’s perspective might not alter empathy very much. Someone can read something with an eye for singling out only the items that would cement a particular, and already-held, world view. The New Jim Crow can be dismissed before it’s even read. So can the lessons of A Raisin in the Sun. Any narrative about an Other we don’t have a personal interest in reading about can be avoided or ignored. But, on the whole, ever since the mass production of narratives, I’m convinced that more and more people do step outside their own minds and slip into someone else’s. Sometimes maybe even accidentally.

If civilization is now a global village, we have to become more open-minded. And if having to become more open-minded is too much, we should want to. History is replete with examples of horrible things that happen when a world view becomes closed off, incapable of adding new narratives that might change the current one. I say read a book, recommend a book, write a book. Take an active share in the development of empathy. Pick a book about a character whose qualities you know little about. Who comes from a region you know little about. A time period. Just make sure you read deliberately, half the time anyway. I have no qualms if you spend the other half of the time rereading Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings for the tenth time.

Here’s a short Scientific American article about reading and empathy I found after finishing this blog post.

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