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5 quotes on reading and empathy

I’m afraid I traumatized the first group of students to whom I told, “There are no new ideas.” Actually, I meant it to be comforting. But here in the US, we are in a committed relationship with the idea of originality, which is perhaps a by-product of having a short history.

Reading is an exercise in empathy - Malorie BlackmanAt any rate, my intention was to take the pressure off. I wanted to release my students from the anxiety that they must, when writing their essays, uncover some previously unexpressed Deep Truth about the Human Condition. As if, across thousands of years of literature, philosophy, history, etc., someone missed something.

Eventually, I learned to say it in a more palatable, but no less true, way. This is to say, instead of expressing what is not available, I learned how to express what is possible. I encourage my students to have and pursue a genuine question. I encourage them to embrace the understanding that we are not alone, spinning on this insignificant planet in a vast universe, trying to reconcile ourselves with the why or the how or whatever. Therefore, seek the insights of other thinkers and writers who have wrestled with similar questions.

When we arrive at our own understanding of a question or problem, it feels new to us because it is new to us. Even if it isn’t an Original Idea, it will be refreshed and enlivened, as we bring our unique experiences to working through it.

All this is to say, ideas don’t have to be new to be compelling. Perhaps the most intriguing ideas are the ones we keep coming back to again and again. Take, for example, the idea that reading literary fiction inspires connection and empathy. It has been the subject of more than one research study over the last few years. And it’s only what readers and writers have been saying for, oh, 150 years or so:

George Eliot:

“The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from them in everything but the broad fact of being struggling, erring human creatures.”

The most compelling ideas aren't necessarily originalF. Scott Fitzgerald:

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” 

James Baldwin:

“It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive or who had ever been alive.”

Malorie Blackman:

Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.”

David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano:

“We present five experiments showing that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective ToM* (experiments 1 to 5) and cognitive ToM (experiments 4 and 5) compared with reading nonfiction (experiments 1), popular fiction (experiments 2 to 5), or nothing at all (experiments 2 and 5). Specifically, these results show that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM. More broadly, they suggest that ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art.”

*ToM stands for “theory of mind,” the ability to understand others’ mental states and to understand that others may have different believes, values, and ideas from one’s own. The quote is from the abstract of “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind,” a study conducted by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano published in Science.

5 thoughts on “5 quotes on reading and empathy

  1. I love your eloquent introduction.

    Baldwin’s quote sort of sums up about how I feel about the internet – the positive stuff, I mean, not the trolling. When you read personal essays about all sorts of different struggles, even about the most obscure-seeming issues, or pieces about different times in history. The internet has helped me greatly – in addition to books, of course. But it makes me think: A lot of the books I’m drawn to are things that veer away from suffering….Maybe you could say that I can only take suffering in small doses, generally (though there are some books that have proven an exception). For me, books have mostly been a source of escape and/or inspiration (again, with some exceptions). Thanks for that unexpected insight into myself.

    Also, I like Fitzgerald more and more with everything I read by him.

    1. Hi Alysa! That’s such a great point about personal essays. I had a similar conversation with a friend recently in terms of mommy bloggers. On the one hand, I feel very uncomfortable writing about my son’s experiences except in the most nondescript, general way. Yet I’ve benefited from reading the work of parents who don’t feel this discomfort.

      I also want to say: I hear you about suffering. Ido not seek it in life or between the pages of a book. I read an article in The Guardian recently by Hanya Yanagiharan (author of “A Little Life”). She argues something like, “we read to be upset.” I was thinking, No, no, no, NO! I don’t relate to that at all. I read to feel hopeful, to connect and understand the human condition. I understand suffering is inevitable, but I don’t go looking for it or luxuriate in it or glamorize it. Hmmm, I’ll probably need to write about this at some point. 🙂

      1. Whew, I’m glad I’m not the only one who doesn’t read to suffer. It makes me think of that Lars von Trier quote where he said “A movie should be like a pebble in your shoe.” I think some people really do like that – from what I understand, I think people like to find themselves and their suffering in a story, or they like the catharsis of a good cry or something. I think most French moviegoers are like that, too – so many French movie trailers are like the same story, about some couple suffering quietly or something – it’s so stereotypical that it’s funny. Not to say all French movies are like that, of course. But there are always a few currently out in theaters like that.

        Sorry – digression.

        Anyway, I’m glad you and I are on the same page (har har) about not reading for the express purpose of being bummed out.

        Also, that’s a really interesting insight into you writing about your son. I sometimes think when we really, really love someone or something, it can be hard to write or do art about them that really rings true or feels right to us. I feel like it can be these absolutes – either you can’t shut up about the thing/person you love, or you can’t say or do much at all. I have that problem with certain things and motifs in my life, too, and before he passed away, my father-in-law had trouble even conceiving of how he would sketch or paint a portrait of my son, whom he loved with all his heart. So I think that’s normal – it’s just a sign you love your son.

        1. Uh…just to clarify, in case my son randomly comes upon this one day (he already loves books, so he just may be a future fan of yours!): I’m in the other group, at least when it comes to my son: I can’t STOP writing about him, whether it’s emails, blog posts, notes on his behavior (yeah, I”m odd) and I take millions of pictures of him on the daily.

          1. I love that you can’t stop writing about your son. 🙂 Selfishly, I hope you don’t stop because it’s such a joy to watch him grow and to read about him! At the same time, I can relate to your father-in-law’s feelings. We each relate to what is sacred to us in different ways, and that is okay!

            Also, you made me laugh with your comment about French films. I have to say, I’ve noticed that tendency, and in literature too. This is why I find the existentialists somewhat tedious. I am so fierce about believing in our capacity and responsibility for creating meaning. If we connect to human experience at all, then suffering is inevitable. But I see it as the rising action rather than the final destination.

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