Reading Your Way to a More Empathetic Self

The political polarization in our country appears pervasive. When you watch the news or engage with social media, it feels like people are more divided than ever. Is that perception accurate? Are those divisions everywhere, or are there places where people with differing views get along? A recent study conducted by the polling firm PredictWise for The Atlantic sought to learn which counties in the United States exhibit the most and least partisan prejudice. The results were fascinating and surprising. I was shocked and dismayed to find that I live in one the most politically intolerant places in the country: Montgomery County, Maryland. The researchers found that the most intolerant locales tend to be populated by individuals who are “whiter, more highly educated, older, more urban, and more partisan” than others. According to The Atlantic, an earlier study conducted by University of Pennsylvania Professor Diana Mutz uncovered similar findings: “White, highly educated people are relatively isolated from political diversity. They don’t routinely talk with people who disagree with them; this isolation makes it easier for them to caricature their ideological opponents.”

The Atlantic reported that one of the least politically prejudiced places is Jefferson County, New York. To understand the reasons behind this, a reporter spent time in Watertown, New York, meeting with residents with differing political opinions. The population is diverse and tends to skew younger than many other counties. The reporter found that at the root of their tolerance is something more basic than one would imagine and increasingly rare in this digital society: They spend time face-to-face.

One of the Watertown ministers holds a weekly breakfast in which men at opposite ends of the political spectrum read books and talk together. They recently read The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, detailing the mass incarceration that has systematically oppressed black Americans, and Dreamland, Sam Quinones’s book about the opiate crisis. The minister said the success in getting polarized groups together is face-to-face meetings and good food: “Once you’re fed, and you’re with friends, you’re a better person,” he says. The second secret is to talk for a long time. “We talk about it long enough until we realize how much we don’t know,” he explains. “Once you realize how much you don’t know, the honest conversation comes out.”

The men’s breakfast is slow and personal, a stark contrast to the fast-paced, digital society of today. According to the site Digital Detox:
  • 50% of people would rather communicate digitally than in person.
  • 60% of people say traditional vacation does not relieve their stress.
  • 33% of people admit to hiding from family and friends to check social media.
This isolation from others can have profound effects. A University of Michigan study found that college students are about 40% “lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago.” In a related study, the same researcher found that people’s kindness and helpfulness over a similar time period has also fallen.

Does our overuse of technology contribute to stress and get in the way of building deep, meaningful relationships? Is our fear of missing out compelling us to live life in the fast lane? Can we take steps toward closing some of those political divides if we just slow down and take time to talk with each other? As lawyer, author, and activist, Bryan Stevenson suggests, we need to “get proximate.” He notes that “there is power when we get proximate and only then can we have mercy and compassion.”

The Connection Between Reading and Empathy

With summer approaching, I would suggest doing just that—consider getting proximate and looking at life through someone else’s experience. Take a cue from the Watertown minister—read with others in diverse groups. In addition to great nonfiction titles that can provide inspiration for the classroom, consider reading literary fiction. Researchers at The New School in New York City conducted a study in which they gave groups different reading assignments—popular fiction, literary fiction, and nonfiction, with a control group not reading. After the groups finished their assignments, they took a test to measure their ability to “infer and understand other people’s thoughts and emotions.” The researchers found significantly higher scores among those participants who read literary fiction. They noted that literary fiction has rich character development, and these characters tend to “disrupt reader expectations, undermining prejudices and stereotypes.” Although some have disputed this study, other studies have gone on to discover similar results. One such study found that high schoolers became less racist after reading Harry Potter. What’s not clear is whether these results are long-lasting. It’s one small step in the right direction though.

Reading can also make you happier. Writing in The New Yorker, social anthropologist Ceridwen Dovey describes a gift she received from a bibliotherapist, a book expert who will develop a curated reading list for whatever ails you. The experience opened up some new titles for her and, although not a cure-all, did provide new insights as reading often does. I found her description of where reading can take you to be spot-on however:
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. As Woolf, the most fervent of readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union” with another mind.
Ready to build your summer reading list? Some of my personal literary fiction favorites from the past few years include:
  • The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
  • The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
  • A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
Each provides a glimpse into a world very different from my own and characters that stretched my worldview. I hope you will share some of your favorites and consider starting your own book club. Happy summer and happy reading.
Donna Orem
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is NAIS President.


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