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Reading your way to empathy

Reading your way to empathy

Reading your way to empathy

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Whenever someone asks me what my latest book is about, I am tempted to give a one-word answer: people.

Yes, Legacy is about Andalucía, the region’s stunning scenery and long-held customs, and in the book you’ll read about things like gypsy medicine and art and philosophy. But fundamentally, the book is about a woman and a man falling in love, and the complex relationships that define them: their relationship with each other, and their relationships with their family members, past and present. It is through those relationships – not the setting or the story – that the central themes of the book are established: passion, betrayal, intrigue.

Put simply, people are at the heart of all fiction: how people think and feel and act as individuals, and, more intestestingly, how they interact with one another. When you read a novel, then, you are making a decision to engage with people, to be open to empathising.

The empathy engendered by reading is so powerful. Though we read alone, we are not alone; we become connected to others. James Baldwin wrote:

‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. 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, who had ever been alive.’ 

This connection is a means of understanding others. ‘You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself,’ wrote John Steinbeck. Reading allows us to feel other people in ourselves, so that we may understand them – but also, crucially, so that we may understand ourselves better.

Recently, the Guardian ran an article entitled ‘Frequent readers make the best lovers, say dating-app users’. It reported that the dating website eHarmony has found that both women and men are more likely to be approached on the site if they list reading as a hobby on their profile. Why? The Guardian article suggests it comes down to empathy. Readers are widely known to be more empathetic than non-readers, and empathy is, of course, a desirable quality in a partner.

Apparently, women who list The Hunger Games among their favourite books are most popular on eHarmony, while men looking for a date are best listing a Richard Branson book. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is popular for both genders. I wonder what this says about empathy. Does business non-fiction count for building empathy? Are women less interested in empathy in a partner than men? Why are the most popular fiction reads both dark, gritty novels full of death and drama?

What kinds of books do you think best build empathy? Do you connect better to characters in certain genres? When you read, do you seek books that will, as Steinbeck put it, enable you to ‘feel other people in yourself’? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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