Empathy, Connection, and the Inner Lives of Readers

September 23, 2016
“There are perhaps no days of our childhood lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.” – Marcel Proust

“Anyone who says they have only one life to live must not know how to read a book.” – Anonymous

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One of the perks of being a middle school librarian is getting to observe children reading for pleasure. It happens every day in the stacks, at the tables in the library, on the couches in the silent reading room, sitting on the carpet by a window, or in the courtyard on a bench. Sometimes the reader is alone snacking surreptitiously or sitting beside a friend or someone they do not know, a fellow traveler along the literary landscape.

Given the plethora of other things the children could be doing, many of which involve looking at a screen, even as a librarian it seems remarkable to me that our children choose to read in their free time and to read works of fiction. From an adult perspective there is comfort in the continuity; one can easily imagine children from previous generations or even oneself reading with a similar devotion at that age. What can be less easy to imagine is how different one’s life might have been growing up amidst the increasing pressures and countless choices of the present moment.

At a busy school with various schedules and commitments, one of the best reasons to read fiction may be to escape from the present moment or, as the poet Stephen Dunn describes, a desire to experience otherness. While these reasons may sound like a distancing from the self with the words “escape” and “otherness” I believe the opposite is true. On its face reading is a communicative act, between the author and reader, between the reader and the characters, and between the reader and the reader’s inner life. A good book can help the reader commune with oneself, and not only commune but loosen and expand which is one of the reasons we try so hard to provide an inclusive literature, to avoid the dangers of a single story or worse, no story at all. In growth mindset terms, a book can be the ax for the frozen sea within us as Kafka famously put it.

We dedicate a lot of time and energy at this school into developing empathy in our students. Books and stories are by their nature empathy machines, and by reading about others, and not just reading but feeling for others, we grow ourselves. It is how many of us become ourselves. In recent years neuroscientists mapping the brain have provided evidence for what most of us have long known: that reading fiction taps into the same brain networks as real life experience. In other words, when you are engaged in a fictional story your brain is literally living vicariously through the characters.

I hear stories from parents about their children holed up with a good book and balling their eyes out, and I think “Yes! That’s what books are supposed to do.” It is a safe and appropriate way to explore, expand our feelings, and to feel less alone and more understood.

I cannot imagine an inner life without the written word. As someone who was raised by immigrants without any sort of religion, I often felt unmoored, lonely and misunderstood and turned to books for solace. Reading Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret felt like a deeply held secret. I was in fifth grade, a Chinese American boy living in rural Illinois and, it seemed to me, probably not the intended audience. And yet at the time, somehow, it also seemed like exactly the right book for me.

We often talk about windows and mirrors in children’s literature. Margaret was obviously a window for me, and a fascinating one, into the world of American girlhood, and surprisingly felt like a mirror in ways. I have not read the book since that initial reading as a child, but recall feeling a kinship to Margaret’s inner life, her desires and insecurities. In other words, I empathized with Margaret, a character so different from myself. And what is empathy anyway if not connection, love?

I have come to believe that reading for pleasure is an act of faith, that the author has something to say, that the reader has something to feel, that stories have meaning capable of bridging great divides. And I would be remiss if I did not also mention the great joy reading can bring.

We all already know this, that reading books is a good thing for our children, that we should make more time for reading given what’s at stake, and yet I could think of nothing more urgent to write about. There is a poster above my desk that reads: “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” It’s a quote from Cicero that I love. To me, in this context, there is an implied nourishment, a care and feeding that books can provide. I cannot think of a time in my life where books were not a comfort to me, where thoughts and feelings were not accentuated through the reading of just the right words, in the right order.

Returning to Kafka’s ax and frozen sea, I like the idea that it is possible for our individual seas to become unfrozen, again and again, and even enjoy the idea of a violent rupture creating the change. It is a testament to the power of books, to the vastness of an inner life. I like to imagine all of those seas, over time becoming unfrozen, flowing freely, eventually connecting.

Jeff Chang
Middle School Librarian