Reading and empathy

Right now I am currently reading The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (which is excellent so far, btw). I was reading it this morning and came across the following quotation: “That’s why stories appeal to us. They give us the clarity and simplicity our real lives lack.” The character who said this is the hero of The Name of the Wind, and the book tells the story of his life as he recounts it to a chronicler. In this quotation, he was essentially talking about the Hero’s Journey and how his own story is more complicated than the archetypal hero story because it is real (which of course, it isn’t, and it totally does follow the Hero’s Journey structure). But this statement stopped me while I was reading because it reminded me of an article I read a few days ago.

Love 2 Read 365 wrote a blog post about an article from The New Yorker, “Can Reading Make You Happier?” The article talks about bibliotherapy and the book The Novel Cure, which is a book of reading recommendations as prescriptions for particular feelings or conditions. The article is fantastic, and I highly recommend reading the entire thing. It, along with The Name of the Wind, got me thinking about the act of reading and how it affects our interactions with the real world. Here is one expert from the New Yorker article:

In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.

I know, right!? This statement rings true with me: reading fiction is at the same time an escape, and also connects you to truths in the real world. That, along with the Rothfuss theory above, is why stories are so enjoyable. Additionally, the article goes on to discuss how reading fiction can nourish your ability to empathize in the real world, a concept which is far from ground-breaking. Many articles have been written about this concept, and people cite it as a reason why reading is important. The New Yorker Article discuses this concept, but also provides a very interesting counterargument:

In her 2007 book, “Empathy and the Novel,” Suzanne Keen takes issue with this “empathy-altruism hypothesis,” and is skeptical about whether empathetic connections made while reading fiction really translate into altruistic, prosocial behavior in the world. She also points out how hard it is to really prove such a hypothesis. “Books can’t make change by themselves—and not everyone feels certain that they ought to,” Keen writes. “As any bookworm knows, readers can also seem antisocial and indolent. Novel reading is not a team sport.” Instead, she urges, we should enjoy what fiction does give us, which is a release from the moral obligation to feel something for invented characters—as you would for a real, live human being in pain or suffering—which paradoxically means readers sometimes “respond with greater empathy to an unreal situation and characters because of the protective fictionality.”

This makes a lot of sense. I’ve always been a big believer in the reading-creates-empathy theory, however, this point strikes a chord. Can reading also be an inhibitor of real-world empathy? After all, I do believe that Rothfuss was right in claiming that we love stories because they are simplified versions of reality and give us a clarity we don’t have outside the pages of a book. So it makes sense that some people would find it easier to empathize with fictional characters whose stories are clear-cut (and whose stories are manipulated by an author whose goal is to make the reader feel for their characters). So which is it? Does reading create empathy or provide a false, over-simplified form of empathy that doesn’t translate to real life?

It’s pretty much undeniable that the kind of empathy one feels for fictional characters is not the same kind of empathy one feels for real people. However, does “practicing” empathy when we read help or hinder our real-work interactions with others? It seems to me that stories, being a simplified version of life, create a simplified version of empathy. So the reading-creates-empathy theory is, naturally, more complex than it is often made out to be.

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