So the other day an article came in my email about how a judge sentenced a group of juvenile delinquents to read books and write reports on them as their punishment. The books chosen were ones that shed light on difficult periods of human history Books that talked about racism, slavery, war and other tough topics. Opinions on this decision were mixed with some people believing the judge was too lenient and others saying using books as punishment would just make young people hate books. The evidence, however, was that reading these books taught these kids a thing or two about understanding their fellow man.
In other words: empathy.
This idea stuck with me long after I finished reading the article. I mean, how often do we think about the effect reading fiction can have on the way we view the world around us and the people in it? In school we read a lot of non-fiction. We’re taught from non-fiction books and then when we do read fiction it’s usually to dissect what the author was trying to say when they made curtains in a room red instead of blue. We discuss metaphor and character arc and as a writer I’m all for that but it’s only one way to look at fiction.
These days booked are being banned left and right because they’re too political or too inflammatory or too dark but what if that’s the wrong way to look at it? What if, instead of banning books we showed people how to read them and use the stories and characters tucked between their pages… to develop empathy?
A well written book has the power to change us. Learning history is great, I love history, it was one of my favorite subjects in school. But history can be clinical. We learn about events, we’re taught dates, and we read statistics but do we always connect those statistics to people? Fiction not only gives us the opportunity to view things from another perspective, it challenges us to slip into someone else’s skin.
These days the world we live in has become a very small place. We’ve shrunk the world down to fit inside of our computers and smart phones and because of that we too often operate under the false assumption that we understand. We understand people in Africa just because it’s no longer labeled the “dark continent. We understand racism because we see it talked about on the news two or three minutes at a time. We understand the tragedies of war because we learned about it in history class.
We assume a lot about what we think we understand.
I’m the last person to throw stones. I’ve avoided books about hard topics because they weren’t as entertaining as some other book I wanted to read more. I’ve chalked up casualty counts to statistics on my history test. I’ve avoided the things I didn’t want to think about too hard. But I’ve also read To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Book Thief and other books. I’ve read books about mental health and adoption. These are small things that caused me to push myself out of my comfort zone and pick up more books that challenged how I viewed the world. Each and every time I’ve done that, made that choice, I’ve gotten a lot more out of it then I get just from those books that entertain me.
I don’t claim to be an expert on anything. I have no deep intimate knowledge of people who are different from me just because I read a few books but those books made me want to at the very least strive to better understand the people around me, even the people beyond my reach. I still read books that are purely for my entertainment, I always will, and that’s okay. But the empathy, the desire to understand, the empowerment to be part of the solution rather then just another problem, is a part of me now. I will carry that with me always.
So my questions to you is this. What books have you read that opened your eyes to the people around you? Have you ever been so moved by a book that in a moment everything seemed to shift? Was that book fiction or non-fiction or have you experienced the sensation from both?
Until next time, stay passionate and excelsior!
Photo credit: EKG Technician Salary