One of the many joys of reading is that we get to live many lives. Sometimes the most immersive of books will make us feel like we have lived another life. Within the pages of each book, therein lies a whole other universe and a perspective separate to our own. In today’s Let’s Talk About, and the first Let’s Talk of 2016, I want to talk about how reading has given me the opportunity to see new perspectives and lives, and, in extension, has helped me become a more empathetic person.
SEEING THROUGH AND LIVING IN A WHOLE OTHER WORLD
By definition, empathy is “the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling.“(1) As readers, empathy is an intrinsic part of reading. Though we may exist separately from them, the character’s perspective is almost always central to the narrative. Understanding characters, or trying to understand them, is an inherent part of reading – one that I, and probably many others, take particular joy in doing.
One of the most wonderful things about reading and stories is that we live closely to another character during our reading experience. We may even live it when we feel ‘transported’ to the story and its world. We read about their thoughts, their ideas, their beliefs, their motivations. Like people, well-written characters will have a complex system of mind – encompassing thought, belief, motivation, action – that makes them unique and an individual. As readers, we get insight into that world and we become a part of it. Even if the characters we read about do things or think things that we do not necessarily agree with or would do ourselves, empathy is necessary for us to try and understand why they do the things they do, and seeing into their world gives us insight into how the character lives their life.
READING EXPOSES US TO DIFFERENT LIFE CIRCUMSTANCES
Regardless of whether the book is a fantasy, science-fiction, dystopian, or realistic fiction, we read about characters that are out to save the world, characters that are growing up in their own way, characters embarking on journeys that are important to them, or even characters that are living ordinary lives. Whatever their circumstances, as readers we are exposed to characters of different backgrounds, life situations, and histories. Characters can therefore offer new insights to things that are outside of our lived experiences, giving us an in-depth picture of what it’s like to live their life.
Books that expose us to different situations or life circumstances are incredibly important too. Think about books that feature characters of colour, LGBTQ+ characters, characters with disabilities, characters with mental illnesses, or something that isn’t commonly found in mainstream media but needs to be understood. Not only are such characters and their stories a great learning tool (though they aren’t always perfect), but a fragment or large proportion of their stories might have a profound truth of a person’s life.
By reading about a character’s struggles, their joys, their heartbreaks, or things that make them grow, such books can be a great starting point in trying to understand people, their emotions and their lives – no matter how different. Reading has taught me from a young age that people lead very different lives to me, and that you cannot judge a person’s life based on your own personal experiences.
Books that had characters who lived lives very different from mine:
- A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
- For Today I Am A Boy by Kim Fu
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
- Before I Die by Jenny Downham
- Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Jr.
READING LETS US SEE INTO CHARACTERS WHO THINK DIFFERENTLY
It is hard to read about characters who have radically different perspectives and beliefs to us. It can be challenging, maybe confrontational, and may make us a little uncomfortable too. But I think the fact that we can read books that explore characters that may think differently to you is incredibly important. It has been shown that reading literary fiction can improve theory of mind, which is the ability to comprehend and reflect that other people can and will have different beliefs, desires and intentions that will be different to our own.
Though we may not agree with their thoughts or actions (or even like them!), reading encourages us to see individuals in a fuller, deeper picture including all their failures, mistakes, flaws, and decisions, rather than judging them at face-value. More importantly, stories give us the opportunity to see into a person’s complex and multifaceted world, teaching us that there is always more to a person than what we can perceive. We ask ourselves questions – ‘why does the character feel that way?’, ‘what motivates this character?’, or ‘why does the character behave the way they do?’ – as a means of trying to understand the character and connect with them. In understanding these characters, we learn that people operate to values, beliefs, and ideas that are different to ours, which is integral to being empathetic.
Furthermore, it is these characters that remind us that fictional characters – and even people – do not have to adhere to our beliefs, and that characters and people alike are autonomous and separate to us. More so, despite the differences – or because of those differences – we can still engage and connect with them. Reading allows us to understand, explore, empathize, and experience the other.
Books that had characters that thoughts and values different to me:
- Black Iris by Leah Raeder
- Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
- Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge
- Delicate Monsters by Stephanie Kuehn
- The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp
READING HELPS US UNDERSTAND PEOPLE AND THEIR EMOTIONS
Reading different stories and meeting many characters exposes us to a variety of situations – especially emotional situations. As aforementioned, not only are we exposed to different life circumstances and characters that think differently, but we also engage with a character’s emotional reaction to adversary and trying circumstances. Reading about these help us learn about emotions, the complexity of emotions, and why emotions are an important aspect of the human experience.
In fact, research has supported that people who read books with complex, ambiguous characters are generally more empathetic people and have higher emotional intelligence. This is because reading about such characters require us to work harder to flesh out the characters, and trying to understand the character’s feelings and motives is a similar process to how we understand and develop relationships with people (2). The more we understand how emotions and people work, the more we are capable of empathizing with others. Maybe this is why we feel so connected and emotionally invested in our favourite characters, especially the more complex characters – we live their life vicariously and experience all of their emotions.
And I do believe that reading a variety of fiction has helped me develop a more acute understanding of emotions. With the many stories and characters that I come across, reading teaches that people will react to things differently to me, will have very different emotional experiences to me, and also gives me the opportunity to feel deeply for and with the characters in the book. Furthermore, reading about emotions can encourages me to be introspective; I reflect more on my interactions with others and how I am perceived by others. By reading and learning about these experiences, the characters become a point of reference for me, reminding me that people and emotions are always more complex and more than what meets the eye.
Books that taught me about emotions and have made me feel deeply:
- Forever, Interrupted by Taylor Jenkins Reid
- Unteachable by Leah Raeder
- The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
- Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang
- The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
LET’S TALK ABOUT IT
I’m passionate about books and reading because I think the stories within have so much to give to us. Reading has taught me about many things, but above all, it has taught me – and continues to teach me! – about other people, how to understand people and how to empathize with them. So, what about you? I want to hear your thoughts!
- Do you think reading books have made you more empathetic?
- What book taught or encouraged you to empathize with its characters?
- Has there been a book character that you found difficult to empathize with?
- What do you think are good books that teach us about people, emotions, and how to empathize?
Let me know in the comments below!