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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Top Five Friday: Classics I Failed to Finish

I’ve been an avid reader since birth (well, almost.) I know I read more than the average person. I have an English degree that required me to study everything from Beowulf to Zadie Smith. If there was an Olympics for reading, I might not be Michael Phelps, but I’d like to think I’d at least get a bronze medal or two.

In spite of my self-bestowed status as an Olympian reader, there are many classics that I have tried and failed to read.  Today I want to share five of them and briefly explain why they weren’t for me. Keep reading and behold my literary failures.

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Ulysses by James Joyce

Bless my precious heart for thinking this book couldn’t possibly be as daunting as people said. (It is.) Goodreads says this book is “a major achievement in 20th-century literature.” Even so, it’s just not for me.  I admire Joyce’s creativity, risk-taking, and lasting contribution to literature, but I think I only made it ten pages before closing the book and putting it back on the shelf.

One of my college classmates did read Ulysses in its entirety. I still remember him and think in a Chris Traeger voice, “Way to go, buddy. Way to go.”

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I’ve always liked going to antique stores, even as a kid. When I was in middle school, I was in an antique store with my parents and found a beautiful copy of Pride and Prejudice. I decided to get it and read it. I did get it, but read it? Not so much. I tried, though. I’ve picked up this book at least five times and wanted to read it, but I just can’t make myself finish it. I can’t get into it at all. That didn’t stop me from buying another copy of it, though. I had to have the A in the Drops Caps collection. I tried reading that edition, thinking my brain might be tricked by the new cover, but no. I still can’t do it. Kathleen Kelly would be so disappointed in me.

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

If you weren’t upset enough that I don’t like Pride and Prejudice, I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to know I don’t like Little Women, either. I made it about 100 pages into this book (which is way farther than I’ve ever made it in P & P) but I lost interest and couldn’t make myself finish it. I own a beautiful edition of this book, so I keep it around for its looks, but I’m just not into its personality. Sorry, Louisa.

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Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding

To earn my English degree, I had to take and pass a comprehensive exam. The reading list was lengthy, including novels, poems, plays, and stories. I honestly don’t remember much that was on the list, but I remember this book. I am an avid rule-follower, so I did my assigned reading. I wasn’t the student who would just use SparkNotes and hope for the best. But as I read Joseph Andrews, I actually said out loud, “I hate you, book.” I briefly turned into a rebel and didn’t finish the book, but I passed the exam anyway. Joseph and I were never meant to be.

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Middlemarch by George Eliot

I hear Middlemarch come up all the time in people’s lists of favorite books, so it’s the only title on my list that I want to try again someday. I read quite a bit of this one and was really into it when I first started, but I lost interest around the halfway point. I’m not quite sure why, but I just didn’t care enough to go another 400 or so pages. Maybe the timing was wrong. I promise I’ll come back to you someday, George Eliot.


What are the classics that haunt you? What are the ones you just couldn’t force yourself to finish?

So You Want to Read More Diversely

I’m a white, middle-class woman. That comes with certain privileges not given to those who don’t look or live like me. As a way to learn from different viewpoints and broaden my view of the world, diversifying my reading has been one of my primary goals over the past few years.

One of the best things about reading is that it helps develop empathy, and empathy makes us better humans. If you too are hoping to read more diversely, the books below are a good start.

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Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

The title of Trevor Noah’s book comes from the fact that his entire early existence was indeed a crime. He has a black mother and a white father whose relationship was forbidden during apartheid. Noah tells the story of his struggle to find a place as a biracial kid growing up poor in South Africa. Though this book grapples with abuse, poverty, and systemic oppression, it’s also incredibly funny. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Noah talks about how humor in dark times isn’t just necessary, but that it helps tear down barriers between people on opposite sides of an argument. If you’re an audiobook fan, that’s definitely the best way to read this book. Noah narrates and does an excellent job telling his story.

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This Will Be My Undoing: Living at the Intersection of Black, Female, and Feminist in (White) America by Morgan Jerkins

The best word I can use to describe the essays in this collection is “fierce.” I was blown away by the honesty and vulnerability in this book, the author’s first. Jerkins in only in her mid-twenties, so her insights are especially impressive. There were sections of her book that made me uncomfortable because I didn’t want them to be true. I don’t want it to be true that black women are often ignored in the discussion and practice of feminism. I don’t want it to be true that black women will not be forgiven for the same mistakes white women make all the time. That discomfort is exactly why reading diversely is important. This book expanded what I thought I already knew and reminded me how important it is to listen.

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One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul

This collection of humorous essays discusses Koul’s unique experiences growing up in an Indian family living in Canada. She wrestles with feeling out of place in her family’s traditions. I loved reading about her life, and especially like the essay in which she travels to India for a family wedding. Koul’s discussion about introducing her white boyfriend to her parents was another highlight for me. If you’re looking for a lighthearted, funny book, this is a great choice.

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The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I’ve only read a handful of graphic novels because it’s just not a format I like that much. I thoroughly enjoyed this graphic memoir, though, and suggest it even to those of you who might not think the format is for you. Persepolis is about Satrapi’s coming of age in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. She has to navigate all the difficulties of growing up alongside great political unrest in a culture in which females aren’t fully valued. This was an engrossing, eye-opening story that I’m glad I took a chance on.

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The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

While all the other books on this list are true stories, I wanted to recommend this piece of fiction too. Henriquez tells the story of the Rivera family. They move to the United States seeking better medical care for their daughter, Mirabel, who has just suffered a terrible accident. Eventually, a romance develops between Mirabel and a boy who also lives in her family’s apartment complex, but this story is really about the struggles immigrants face as they chase after the elusive American Dream.


I realized while putting this post together that not only are all of these books worth reading, but they’re worth staring at too. How great are these covers? What books would you suggest to someone who wants to expand their literary horizons?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?