6 Books for Growing in Empathy
I, like you, read for many reasons. I enjoy the entertainment, I appreciate the art, I lean into the escapism, and I read to understand another's perspective.
We have seen the studies saying reading makes us smarter, and now studies are showing us that reading can also make us more empathetic. We devoted readers aren't surprised, but it also takes a certain discipline to branch from our usual fare and into areas we are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with.
In January 2017, I looked at the list of books I had read the previous year, and realized that I although I read plenty of books, I didn't read WIDE. Historical fiction, thrillers, family dramas, etc, dominated the list, and they all had protagonists or settings that were pretty similar to mine (white, middle class, American or British). So for the remainder of the year, I set the intention of reading as widely as I possibly could. And this lead to the most thought-provoking, rewarding year of reading I have ever had.
Here are a few of the titles that really stood out to me--not just as entertaining works of writing (which they all are!), but works that taught me a great deal of EMPATHY. Which have you read? What did they teach you? What will you add to your 2018 reading list?
Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
What I Learned: I had embarrassingly little knowledge about apartheid South Africa and the time after, so this book was eye-opening. Noah’s story is poignant, funny, entertaining, and, most importantly, taught me about the hard-working spirit immigrants must develop to survive and leave their home countries.
Highlights: Noah’s account of his scrappy entrepreneurism in order to make a living in South Africa.
This book would also be an excellent audio choice, since the author (and host of the Daily Show) reads it himself.
Don’t just take my word for it: NAACP Image Award for Memoir (2016), #10 Most Read Book on Amazon
(what is IndieBound? It’s a website that will help you find a copy at your local independent bookstore. Highly recommend)
My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
What I Learned: No one captures ordinary, slice-of-Midwestern-life quite like Elizabeth Strout. Here she helped me understand what issues are facing the lower income brackets in the middle of our country—first through the eyes of someone who has broken out (My Name is Lucy Barton), and then through the eyes of those who didn’t (Anything is Possible). Realizing the issues and shame that our neighbors can experience help me understand why this group of people feel unheard and left behind.
Highlights: the first chapter of Anything is Possible, which introduces us to Tommy Guptill.
Although both of these books can stand alone, I do recommend reading both with Lucy first.
Don’t just take my word for it: Lucy Barton was long listed for the Man Booker Prize, Elizabeth Strout was awarded the Pulitzer for her other novel Olive Kitteridge.
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
What I Learned: W-O-W, I learned so much from this novel, but the biggest thing that I had to confront were my own lingering judgments of how people dress, speak, and where they choose to live. It’s embarrassing to write that, since I thought I had dealt with it long ago, but THAT is exactly why reading to grow in empathy is so fruitful.
Highlight: Thomas really represented a teenager’s feelings and perspectives without getting as dramatic as some other YA.
Don’t be scared by the Young Adult label, I believe everyone will enjoy this.
Don’t just take my word for it: 8 Starred Reviews (including Kirkus), Goodreads Choice Awards Best YA Fiction and Best New Author
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
What I Learned: Not only a fantastic and engaging story, Ng’s (pronounced “ing”) book gave me yet another example of how there are two sides to a story (sometimes more), and how dangerous stereotypes can be.
Highlight: The reminder that there can be so much more hiding below the surface of a person.
This would be an excellent book club selection!
Don’t just take my word for it: Goodreads Choice Awards Best Fiction, nominated for NAACP Image Award
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
What I Learned: I do feel like a better human after reading this book. The different perspectives of the four college friends reignited the understanding that everyone is carrying their own burdens; and thoroughly made me understand the power of friendship. Lovely Jude, on his own, helped me feel what living in chronic pain must be like (not that all who are in chronic pain live like Jude, but that's how humanizing Yanagihara's prose is).
Highlight: “Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.”
Warning: this is an intense book. I give you full permission to stop reading if it becomes particularly triggering for you!
Don’t just take my word for it: Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Shortlisted for the National Book Award, Nominated for Goodreads Choice Awards Best Fiction (all in 2015).