Before I get to the point of this post, let me start back. Wayyy back.
When we read, our brain arranges the symbols from the page into a little world, like cooking from a recipe or constructing a building from blueprints. The bits and pieces fit together, mixed and remixed with whatever we bring to the experience, hopefully in coherent shapes. That construction changes and develops as we continue to read. It could be a story, a history, an argument for a course of action or idea or all of the above. The influence of the new reading could be great or small, lasting or temporary, but that small, growing world starts to encroach on whatever understandings we already had inside. We call it learning: not only facts, but actual understanding, perspective, scope, connection. Empathy.
Unless we’re narcissistic control freaks, we don’t expect everyone to completely agree with us all the time. However, we probably don’t want to spend much time with people who won’t at least try to see our point of view or appreciate how we feel about things. We rightly expect some amount of empathy. We say “Know what I mean?”, “See what I’m saying?” and “I mean… right?!” We work pretty hard to be heard and understood, because we need it.
It’s why we write and why we read. It’s the reason stories exist.
If something meaningful happens to us, we often don’t just relate the bare facts; we, literally, tell a story. We want that person to see it from our perspective, to experience it like we did. Here’s a simple, but maybe common, example:
“Ok, I’m getting off the freeway, right? There’s this huge truck, and he’s not signaling, so I’m like, that guy is going straight, yeah? So, the light changes, and I start to go…. And this idiot just guns it and cuts right in front of me! He actually scraped my bumper! I barely stopped in time!”
We hope our listener will assent to the stupidity of the truck driver and feel a little of our fear, anger, etc. Sometimes, we use hypotheticals, “Well, how would you like it if your mom lost her medical coverage?” It’s still a short, little story, that says “Can you see it? Do you feel it?”
Consciously or not, we’re trying to grow a little world inside our listener, hoping it will influence them towards empathy.
We constantly trade empathy with each other in both serious and goofy contexts in everyday life. Without shared experiences, thoughts or feelings on some level, we don’t have a relationship with someone. In the big picture, without empathy, we are not even a society; we are an arena. And, of course, some people would have it that way.
Every time we read, the author is trying to grow a little world inside us.
It’s as if the author is standing in front of us, telling us the story of when they almost got hit by a truck. They might be taking 400 pages to do it, but by the end, they’re saying, “I mean… right?!” Indeed, we might feel a little adrenaline ourselves, a little fear, and we empathize; we are totally on board. As they build that little world inside us – if they’re any good at it – our view of the world changes.
And then, sometimes, something additional happens: we meet the truck driver.
It turns out he has a story, too. This is a totally different little world, a different book, a different author — You’d think we’d be curious. What was he thinking? I mean, why would he not signal? Why would he just floor it and not even slow down as he clipped our bumper? Why?
But sheesh – it’s like starting over. We like the way our empathies are arranged, and it took us a while to get here (400 pages). This guy represents almost the exact opposite of this other story to which we are already committed.
We’re not really sure we want to rock that world already built inside us.
And now – at long last(!) – my point:
I started this post off with the idea of getting you to diversify your reading. Then I took a look at my own books. Here are some percentages:
– 12% are by women authors
– 10% of the American authors are not white
– 15% of the authors are non-European
– 20% are works in translation
Most of the authors in my library are white, male English-speakers – just like me. I didn’t consciously do that; I just pick books that look interesting to me, things I think I might enjoy. That story of almost getting hit by the truck really gave me a rush, so I wanna keep talking about it. But if I’m not allowing any new worlds to be built inside me, then I’ve just stopped learning, haven’t I? My world slowly narrows, starved of encroachments; my empathy might not completely die, but it calcifies.
This is not who I want to be. I have to change my reading habits.
If you, like me, have a library filled with folks who are more-or-less like you, it might be a good idea to take stock of your own reading habits and see if a change is in order. Since one of the main benefits of reading is the cultivation of the empathy needed for a vital society, we might want to keep it from calcifying. Just see if you’ve fallen into the same reading trap as I have. Right now, we are dangerously low on empathy, and there’s no way to fix it but one new, little world at a time.
If you’d prefer a cartoon, check this out on the subject of empathy.