Diverse Reading Creates Empathy

The other day I chatted with another lover of books and, after we caught up on our latest reads, she asked a couple of questions that got me thinking about why I choose the books I do:

Are the characters we meet in a book reflections of ourselves? Or do we select books to vicariously experience life through the eyes of people who are nothing like ourselves? Are virtuous characters uplifting or simply annoying? And is there value in reading about truly nasty characters?

One thing I have always enjoyed about cozies is the interaction of the characters. While there are usually some annoying and aggravating characters (murderer or a red herring?), overall the inhabitants of the cozy world are kind, helpful to one another, and fonts of information that the sleuth needs to solve the crime. These people don’t live in gritty, rodent-infested neighborhoods; they care about each other and their surroundings.

And that kindness, my friends, is why I usually close a book with a smile on my face and a yearning to read the next installment in the series.

For years psychologists have reported that reading novels creates empathy and that character-driven stories create the strongest connections. For instance, children who read Harry Potter novels walk away with a lower acceptance of injustice because Harry often casts his lot with people who face discrimination and intolerance. In other words, spending time in the Hogwarts universe can make a child a better person.

Now I wonder if I am being too narrowly focused in my choice of reading material. Should I branch out to other genres or am I okay sticking to my own little niche? If I don’t, am I being selectively empathetic? Is it possible to relate with characters I don’t like and will that help me understand the cranky people who cross my path?

The answer to all those questions seems to be ‘yes’.

Becoming more empathetic means putting on another person’s metaphorical shoes. To that end, there are a few things I can do to make life better for myself and those around me:

  • Read outside of my comfort zone. I love cozies, no doubt about it. But my next read will be something completely different, maybe a classic I’ve had on my To Read list forever, like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or something more recent, such as Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.
  • Talk to people who are different from me without judgment. The other day I passed an elderly man sitting on a bench in front of a closed pharmacy window. Vaguely I wondered if he was waiting for it to open or if he was simply tired. He looked lonely. In my rush to be somewhere else, I ignored my instinct to ask him if he was doing okay. Maybe he would have rebuffed my questions. Or maybe he would have welcomed the opportunity to talk. I’ll never know, but, in the future, I can embrace connections with people who aren’t like me.
  • Remember that I have no idea what challenges others are facing. Yep, it’s not all about me. I might feel like the world is out to get me, but there is someone out there who is in the midst of a bigger crisis. That person may be standing right in front of me, but I might never know the depth of their despair. As much as I would like people to treat me with kindness, I need to be the first with a kind word. After all, life is a mirror: the image you project reflects back in kind.

Understanding leads to empathy and, if I choose to spend my time with diverse characters, my bookworm ways could make me a better person.

Wouldn’t that be awesome?

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