Reading and Empathy:Can reading fiction make you a more empathetic person?

Can reading help you to understand societal issues and the life experience/lived experience of those who are different from you? 

Studies have linked reading fiction with an increase in charitable giving, improvements in wellbeing and better relationship building. Studies have also found that reading can hugely benefit society at large, and empathy is key to this.  

At a time when the imbalance in society has been brought into the mainstream consciousness I think that we readers have a real opportunity to deepen our understanding of the issues faced by people of colour. We also have the chance to learn how these imbalances came to be and perhaps a way of tackling them. 

Some of the answers of course lie on our bookshelves and in the words of BIPOC authors. 

In the days and weeks which followed the global awakening, with its black squares and corporate statements, it became apparent that the best thing that any of us could do was to listen, learn and engage. 

The first hurdle to hearing these stories is the lack of opportunity for BIPOC authors within modern publishing: an American study found that 76% of published authors were white and just 5% were black. 

Whilst I felt my own reading had been pretty diverse it was in fact very white, in part due to the aforementioned lack of publishing opportunities, but also because the genres I gravitate towards seem to be predominantly populated by white (female) authors. 

A few months into my attempts to read more diversely, with a particular focus on historical fiction, and my reading has been greatly enriched by new voices, spaces and experiences. It’s been uncomfortable, at times devastating but always rewarding. 

Three books I want to shout out in particular: Homegoing, Conjure Woman (see my blog post) and Vanishing Half (OK so claiming this as historical fiction may be a stretch as the latter half of the novel is set from the year of my birth onwards). These books are all of course startlingly different, but they do offer two things. Firstly, the history around where views about race and superiority stem from (Homegoing taught me more about the practice of slavery than any school history book ever did), and then the experience of slaves in America following their emancipation. 

There is too a chance to see very clearly how race impacts a character’s life; the choices and opportunities from which they are barred. The Vanishing Half does this superbly with a clever narrative conceit of contrasting twins, both black but light enough to “pass” as white. Their two fates diverge when one decides to pass as white and so enters a life of privilege. The impact of this choice is even more pronounced when the fates of their daughters are contrasted. These characters are written in such a manner that as a reader you cannot help but connect with them. In this connection there is an opportunity to empathise; we don’t even have to imagine how situations affect them – you see it on the page. When we emotionally engage with characters it activates the same parts of the brain as our personal relationships, and that empathy allows us to follow and engage with a narrative. 

Interestingly this is one of the reasons those who read are said to have better social skills.

The books I mentioned did that thing that all good books should do, namely they transported me to another world in which I got totally lost, and this transportation can also increase empathy – both cognitive (understanding the world from another’s perspective) and affective (the capacity to share another’s feeling). The more you are transported the more empathy you experience. Equally the more you empathise the more you enjoy your reading (how often have you stopped reading a book because you didn’t like a character?). 

That is not to say that this is the only way you can come to an understanding of these issues nor that it should have come to reading about fictionalised characters living with very real discriminations and being held back, but it is one means of deepening your understanding. 

Do you think reading makes you more empathetic? 

1 thought on “Reading and Empathy:Can reading fiction make you a more empathetic person?”

  1. Great post! I’d definitely agree that reading makes you more empathetic. I think one of the main advantages books have compared to other media is that they allow us to get an insight into someone’s head and so experience the world from someone else’s perspective. Reading isn’t just entertainment, but it does teach you valuable skills!

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