The Importance of Reading to Develop Empathy

Last week certainly had its share of anger and violence here in the U.S. Pipe bombs were mailed to political leaders, 2 black shoppers were gunned down in a Kentucky Kroger store, and 11 Jewish people were murdered in their place of worship. Such violence (and the hate that fueled it) is utterly heartbreaking.

As I always do when tragedy happens, I try to make sense of it. I want to understand what could drive a person to hate people based only on their political views or ethnicity. There are no easy answers, of course, but one thing does seem obvious to me, and that’s how desperately we all need more empathy.

Over the weekend, I finished reading Anne Lamott’s newest book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. In it, she talks about a writing class she was teaching for little kids, and says this:

I tell the six-year-olds that if they want to have great lives, they need to read a lot or listen to the written word. If they rely only on their own thinking, they will not notice the power that is all around them, the force-be-with-you kind of power. Reading and writing help us take the blinders off so we can look around and say “Wow,” so we can look at life and our lives with care, and curiosity, and attention to detail, which are what will make us happy and less afraid.

I’m not naive enough to believe that if people just read more books, they’ll never be violent or hateful. But I do think reading broadens our worldview and invites us into stories that are different from our own. It’s easy to fear what we don’t know, but it becomes increasingly difficult to be afraid of something we clearly understand. And isn’t much of our violence based on fear? We humans can turn on each other so quickly, making our neighbor into an Issue or a Problem or an Other. You can’t love an Issue or a Problem or an Other. You can eradicate or solve or ostracize, though. You can slowly keep adding labels to people that dehumanize them.

Later in her book, Lamott goes on to say, “Empathy, a moment’s compassion, seeing that everyone has equal value, even people who have behaved badly, is as magnetic a force as gratitude.” Empathy allows us to get rid of our imperfect and unjust labeling systems and see people for who they are: fragile, needy, and worthy of love and belonging, just like us. This is grace. When it applies to us, it’s the best thing imaginable. When it applies to people we’ve labeled and dehumanized, it can seem terrifying and unjust.

I’m certainly not immune to these feelings. I’m terribly uncomfortable with confrontation, so I try to stay out of political debates as much as possible. But I must admit that I have a hard time loving our current president. I’m offended by his words about immigrants, appalled by his treatment of women, sickened by his disregard for the truth, and shocked by the mess of his White House. His values are at odds with my faith and viewpoint. Last week I read a Facebook post from Lamott in which she’s talking about the battle inside to remember that grace always wins in the end. She says of Trump:

Twenty percent of me aches for the total barbaric ruins of his inner life. Twenty percent. That is a miracle. And on top of that, I’ve realized that God looks at Trump and sees His own suffering son, never leaves him and aches for him, too, pulls for him to be transformed by Love, loves him as a mother does her child.

That gutted me. Lamott’s words immediately gave me pause and helped turned my anger into empathy. While I’m still in strong disagreement with his policies, I’m doing my best to remember they’re coming from a broken man. Aren’t we all well-acquainted with brokenness?

In this time of violence and anger, I’m grateful for the power of words and books to change my own heart. I’m grateful for Born a Crime that showed me what it was like to live in Apartheid. I’m grateful for The Book of Unknown Americans that showed me how hard it is for immigrants to chase the American Dream. I’m grateful for The Ragamuffin Gospel that showed me how absolutely no one is beyond the reach of grace. My list could go on and on.

Reading widely isn’t going to save the world, but it might make us a little kinder, a little gentler, a little more empathetic. And that’s a good start.

7 Ways to End a Reading Slump

If books are a significant part of your life, a reading slump is frustrating. I’ve been through two main types, and I want to briefly explain both.

READING SLUMP #1

This happens when you’re in a season of life in which you’re extremely busy. Perhaps you’re pursuing a new project or hobby. Maybe you just had a baby, started a new job, or are trying to get your degree. In this scenario, life sets automatic limits on how much free time you have.  You might want to read, but have to admit it’s just not feasible right now. Or perhaps you don’t want to pick up a book during this time because your interest lies elsewhere.

READING SLUMP #2

The second type of reading slump is when you’re desperate to pick up and finish a book, but you can’t. You’ve got the time, the books, and a space to read, but you just can’t finish anything. This happens to me when I’m feeling especially stressed or overwhelmed. Sometimes I have tasks hanging over my head, and I can’t focus on a book until I meet my obligations. Other times, no book I start holds my interest, even if it’s by an author I usually adore. This is the most frustrating type of reading slump because it can seem ludicrous to have trouble doing something you love.

Today I want to offer seven tips to help you out of a reading slump. Share your own ideas in the comments below.

1

A reading slump probably isn’t the best time to start that 800-page novel you’ve owned since 2003. Instead, choose a book you can read quickly. Finishing something will leave you with a feeling of accomplishment, and you’ll want to keep that momentum going. Look for something around 200 pages or less. If you want some ideas, check out this Goodreads list.

2

If you aren’t into any of the books you’re trying, pick up a book you’ve already read. If you’re struggling to focus, it won’t matter as much since you already know the story. Plus, going back to a favorite is like seeing an old friend again. Sometimes it feels as if there’s pressure to read all the new and shiny books that have just come out, but there’s a place for your beloved classics.

3

This is usually my first choice when I want out of a reading slump. There’s nothing better than an exciting, plot-driven novel to hold your attention. I’ll always reach for a suspense or mystery book when I need something that’s nearly guaranteed to keep my attention. If you like those genres, take a look at five of my favorites.

4

If you mostly read print books, try an audiobook. If you stick to ebooks, try something in print. Mixing up how you read can breathe some new life into your reading. I’ve found that I can read multiple books at once if they’re in different formats. I prefer nonfiction on audio, something lighthearted or plot-driven on my Kindle, and fiction in physical form. Figure out a system that works for your tastes.

5

If you’re devoted to grisly mysteries, give horror a chance. If you like historical fiction, pick up a biography. If you’ve never read a graphic novel, give one a try next time you’re at the library. There are so many different kinds of books out there (like this one), so stepping outside your literary comfort zone might help you get over your slump. And thanks to libraries, you can try a wide variety of genres without spending anything.

6

Your reading slump might be worsened if you have no clue what to read next. If that’s the case, ask a librarian. (This might be shocking, but they like talking about books.) Listen to a podcast. Search for book lists online. Visit your local bookstore and see what’s new. I’m a subscriber to Book of the Month and  Page 1 Books, so if your budget allows, services like that are a fun way to discover new titles.

7

Sometimes I’m tempted not to read if I know I only have time to get through a few pages. It can feel silly to spend just five or ten minutes reading, but those minutes add up pretty quickly. If you only read for ten minutes a day on a break at work, you’d have read for almost an hour by Friday. That’s significant! Those spare minutes count.


Have you experienced reading slumps? What are your tips for overcoming them?

How I Use My Public Library

As libraries have evolved over the years, they’ve become much more than quiet places filled with books. Libraries offer free programming and classes for just about any interest you can fathom. Some libraries have museum and symphony passes, telescopes or specialty baking pans that patrons can check out. Today I want to share all the ways I use my public library. They employ me, sure, but I’m also a patron.

1.png

BOOKS

This one is obvious, I know, but the primary thing I use my library for is books. I have so many unread books on my shelves at home that I have tried over and over again to cut back on library checkouts, but somehow I end up with a towering stack of library books by my bed anyway. I tell myself that this is really a selfless act since I’m helping keep circulation numbers up. (You’re welcome, library.) I definitely place too many things on hold at a time and sometimes check out books just because they’re pretty, but at least library checkouts are free. Thank God for that.

2.png

DVDs

I hardly ever see movies in theaters anymore because a) it’s expensive and b) I’d have to leave my house. Why would I go see a movie when I could check out a DVD from the library and watch it while curled up in my sweatpants and enjoying the pleasant scent of a Yankee Candle?  I also appreciate the fact that if I don’t like a movie, I didn’t waste any money on it or have to put on real pants to watch it. I love things that are free and also allow me to be lazy and comfortable.

3.png

OVERDRIVE

OverDrive is my source for downloadable books. My library adds new releases on Friday afternoons. I refresh the site compulsively until I see the new stuff, overcome with a feeling of exhilaration when it loads. Being the first to check out a brand new ebook when the holds list for the physical book is staggeringly long is one of my favorite feelings in the whole world. I feel like I have actually accomplished something when all I have actually done is click a button.

I use OverDrive for audiobooks too. I check out books on CD from the library if the book I want can’t be downloaded, but having an entire book on my phone is preferable to trying to shove that large plastic case full of CDs into my already-cluttered car glove box.

4.png

GALE COURSES

Not all libraries will have this subscription, but I’m thankful mine does. Gale Courses offers free 6-week courses on many different topics from writing to programming to gift basket design. (There’s part of me that wants to become a professional gift basket designer now, but I’ll save that post for another day.) I’ve only taken one class before (a poetry writing workshop), but it was a great experience, and I learned a lot. I know I’ve used the word “free” in this post several times already, but how great is it that you can take a class from a qualified instructor for free? That will always excite me.

5.png

NOVELIST

I think NoveList is my BFF when it comes to book sites. I use it all the time, both professionally and personally. If you’re unfamiliar with it, NoveList is a database of books. Depending on the subscription your library has, you might have access to only fiction books, but I’m lucky enough to have access to nonfiction titles too. You can browse book lists, learn more about genres, get help with readers’ advisory, but my favorite feature is how specific you can search. NoveList lets you search for books by tone, setting, and much more. If you want a coming of age book written by a female author that was published in 2005 and got a starred review, you can find it. (I found 25 titles when I did that exact search.) Whether you’re looking for books for yourself or for a patron, NoveList is a fantastic resource.


What about you? How do you use your library? If you don’t, why?

Favorite Horror Novels from Someone Who Thought She Didn’t Like Horror

As a person who hates being scared and is easily startled, I’ve never understood the appeal of horror novels. I love a good suspense story, but stories that are too violent or just plain scary aren’t for me.

I was going to do a post called “(Almost) Horror Novels” about books I found extra-creepy, but as I was looking up the books I wanted to discuss on NoveList, I realized I could strike the “almost” from the post’s title. Based on NoveList’s genre descriptions and reviewer commentary, these books could accurately be described as horror novels.

In an article for NoveList, librarian Sarah S. Davis defines the horror genre like this:

“The goal of horror is to inspire fear. Horror manipulates our deep-rooted anxieties and brings them vividly to life on the page. These fears could be material — clowns, wolves, vampires — or they could be intangible, like solitude, poverty, and failure. Escalating tension pits an everyman against his own mind in a clash that is often more psychological than physical.”

I’ve read many books that made me fearful, had escalating tension, and messed with my anxiety. Today I’m sharing four favorites.

final

Final Girls by Riley Sager

Quincy is the only survivor of a horrifying massacre. As a sole survivor, she’s automatically added to a group of women the media calls Final Girls. Each girl was the only survivor of a brutal crime, and as the book progresses, we learn more about what those crimes were. Quincy can’t bear to think about the night of the massacre, but she’s forced to when another tragedy occurs, and one of the other Final Girls shows up at her door.

This novel is dark, twisted, and there were a few violent scenes which I had to skip. But even though this story made me squirm, I read it straight through. If you like this type of fiction, I bet you’ll read it that way too.

providence.jpg

Providence by Caroline Kepnes

Jon and Chloe were best friends in middle school. Chloe was beautiful and had the attention of the popular kids, but Jon was the target of their scorn. As he walked to school one day, Jon was kidnapped. Four years later, Jon wakes up alone and reads a note from his abductor saying he’s been in an induced coma. When Jon reenters his life, he realizes he has an unwanted power: he can give people heart attacks and kill them. Until he’s cured, he can’t be around his parents or Chloe, who he’s in love with.

Kepnes tells this story in alternating chapters between Jon, Chloe, and a detective nicknamed Eggs who wants to know why healthy people are dying of heart attacks. Providence is as much of a love story as it is a detective novel. It’s as much of a science fiction tale as it is a work of suspense. It reveals the horror of someone who would abduct and manipulate a teenage boy just as it shows the horror of loving someone you can’t have. So far, this is one of my top novels of 2018. Don’t let the offbeat plot keep you from giving this book a try.

monk

The Monk by Matthew Lewis

Speaking of offbeat plots, we’re going from 2018 back to 1796. This gothic novel is difficult to summarize. There’s a monk, of course, named Ambrosio. There’s a woman and/or demon who tempts him. Eventually, Ambrosio sells his soul to the Devil, which is never a good move, in my opinion. In the NoveList description of this book, they call it “an extravagant blend of sex, death, politics, Satanism, and poetry.”

Based on that description, I probably never would have selected this book on my own, but it was assigned to me in a college English course. My professor was giddy that the Catholic university I attended let him teach this, and perhaps some of his enthusiasm rubbed off on me because I ended up engrossed in this sordid tale. If you like your fiction a little weird and disturbing, give this classic a try.

nightfilm

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

Ashley Cordova is the 24-year-old daughter of reclusive Stanislaus Cordova, a movie director known for his cult classic horror films. One night, Ashley turns up dead in an apparent suicide. Scott McGrath, a journalist, doesn’t believe Ashley killed herself. He knows the Cordova family has a lot of secrets and he recruits a couple of scrappy strangers in his quest to get answers.

Night Film is one of my favorite novels of all time. I’ve never read anything like it. The prose itself creates such a spooky atmosphere, but Pessl includes images in the book depicting things such as websites and photos pertinent to Scott’s investigation which add even more interest. This book got a bit of buzz when it was released in 2014, but I never felt it got enough praise for its originality.


What (somewhat mild) horror would you suggest I try next time I want some literary excitement? I’d love some more recommendations.

My Reading Autobiography

Recently, I read an article called “Are You a Reader?” by Karin Perry. Perry discusses how librarians read and how they can help kids become readers. One section of her article was especially fascinating:

“One way Dr. Lesesne and I get our MLS students thinking about their reading lives is to assign a Reading Autobiography. We ask them to think about how they interacted with books during various times of their lives. By understanding what made them like and dislike reading, they will be more aware of what and what not to do with students.”

I want in on this Reading Autobiography project. Today I want to share a few of the books that have either been important to me or shaped me as a reader.

1

The Little Engine That Could and Green Eggs and Ham are my two earliest book memories. I recall reading the latter by myself when I was four or five, and I haven’t stopped picking up books since. Reading was a constant part of my life. Well into my teenage years, my mom always took me to the library. We lived in a small Kansas town when I was a little kid, and we’d visit the one and only branch. They sold plastic book bags for a few cents, and I’d get to pick out a new bag every time and fill it up. As I look back, something I’m grateful for is that I always got to pick whatever I wanted. Whether I was six or sixteen, I don’t ever remember my mom hovering around me, trying to get me to read this or that. I was always allowed to choose whatever books I wanted. I believe choice is vital in helping kids become lifelong readers.

2

When I started reading chapter books, I thoroughly enjoyed the mysteries of The Boxcar Children. (The weird plot of four kids growing up alone in a train didn’t bother me then.) While I liked Boxcar, I loved The Baby-Sitters Club. There were hundreds of these, and I bet I’ve read most of them. Looking back on this series as an adult, I’m impressed with what Ann M. Martin accomplished. This series is about a group of girls becoming entrepreneurs. They make their own money and demonstrate responsibility. Martin covers topics like divorce, death, and sickness in ways that seem real yet appropriate for her readers. I was thrilled to see this series get the graphic novel treatment since it gives a new generation of kids a chance to discover the joy of the BSC.

3.png

Since the Baby-Sitters Club series was so popular, a couple of spinoff series were launched, including California Diaries. I read these books as a tween, and I could not get enough. I was fascinated by the diary format and knew for sure that California was a whole lot more interesting than Kansas. I’ve never heard anyone else talk about this series, so I’m not sure how popular it was. I loved it enough for several people, though, and still own a few of the books.

Columbine happened around the time I was reading Martin’s books. I still remember watching the news and seeing students flee the school. I was shocked by the violence and enthralled by the stories that came out after the massacre took place. As a Christian, the stories of Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott mesmerized me. I read She Said Yes and Rachel’s Tears over and over again. (If you want to read an excellent study of Columbine and it’s aftermath, check out Dave Cullen’s Columbine.)

4

As a kid, all I wanted to be was an adult. I had a wonderful childhood, but I was more interested in adult matters than most kids my age. I remember my mom reading a Nicholas Sparks book, and I asked if I could read it. She said sure, and I started immediately. I was reading an adult book. I thought that was the best thing that had ever happened to me. Shortly after discovering Sparks, I turned to John Grisham thanks to my brother’s recommendation. My early high school years were full of books about lawyers and people in love dying. I loved every suspenseful, sob-inducing minute.

5

In my late teens and early twenties, I wanted depth in my books. I’d moved away from Sparks and Grisham toward anything I thought looked profound based on a cursory glance at the cover when I was at the library. (I found some good books that way, so judging by the cover isn’t always bad.) Two of the books I loved most during this time are Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle and Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. Both of these texts gave me the depth I wanted and spoke to me about art, doubt, faith, and how all three of those can intersect. L’Engle’s thoughts were especially powerful at the time. Walking on Water is still precious to me because that book made me feel seen.

6

In college, I majored in English with a minor in history. Being assigned several hundred pages of reading a week between all of my classes was normal. As is often the case, college stretched me in profound and lasting ways, including my reading life.

I was assigned Till We Have Faces in a course on the philosophy of C. S. Lewis and thought I was going to hate it. Instead, I was captivated by the myth Lewis retells and was struck by his powerful thoughts on beauty and longing. I took a poetry class and needed to have a copy of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. I resold a lot of my college textbooks, but I’ve kept this one. In its pages, I discovered my beloved John Donne and found that beautiful poem of Margaret Atwood’s that I analyzed for a paper (this one). In a contemporary literature class, I read Paradise by Toni Morrison. Though I considered myself widely read, I’d never read anything like Morrison before, and I still haven’t. Her voice is uniquely hers.


There are many more books and authors I could have included, but this is long enough already. I’m going to guess that you’ve never read a blog post before that references Ann M. Martin, John Grisham, and Toni Morrison, so you’re welcome.
What books and authors would be included in your reading autobiography?