Today we need empathy for others more than ever…and we get it by reading books. credit:

It’s trite to say that these are troubled times. Every day the news brings more horror stories of the Covid-19 epidemic and the havoc it is reaping to people’s health, livelihood and lives. We are also reading sorry tales of selfishness and greed, as elderly people are abandoned in care homes to die; wealthy families rush away to their luxurious holiday homes – regardless of the pressure this will put on small local communities with limited resources; students insist on partying in private if not public; shoppers stock-pile supplies to the detriment of their neighbours. And yet there are also tales of great heroism and unselfishness: the healthcare workers risking their lives every day to treat the sick, even in the absence of adequate protection; the factory workers who have foregone going home to their loved ones to work around the clock making face-masks; the many thousands of volunteers in the UK who have come forward, at risk to their own health, to help strangers in need of assistance.

These kind, generous people are empathy in motion…and I would not be the least surprised if a major difference between those who are giving and those who are taking is that the givers are habitual readers – especially of fiction – and the takers rarely open a book. Because the science supports it:

Reading Fiction creates Empathy

A study published in 2014 established that fiction readers possess stronger empathy than both non-readers and non-fiction readers. This is not surprising, since people who read fiction extensively are habitually putting themselves in other people’s shoes (which is the very definition of empathy). As we read, our brains are quite literally experiencing the journeys of the characters, be that joy or excitement, pain or loss or anxiety. Our brains are becoming conditioned to feel the pain that others experience.

It comes, therefore, as no surprise to find that historically, highly literate societies, especially those producing emotionally rich literature, function in a more empathetic way and are less violent than less literate societies. Reading Fiction and reading minds: the role of simulation in the default network by Diana Tamir et al; Social cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Feb 2016

Nor is it suprising to find that readers are more inclined to volunteer, donate and vote, than non-readers (Katz 2006)

Which may explain Donald Trump’s exceptional lack of any quality remotely resembling empathy for anyone but his be-knighted self, since he famously does not read books…

So there we have it: one of many good reasons to read books during these troubled times – if you’re not already on the front line giving of your time, your heart and your soul…for which I say a heartfelt thank you.