Empathy Week: Literature by People Whose Lives Don’t Look Like Ours Builds Empathy

I remember finishing Crime and Punishment at a bus stop on my way home from work years ago and the end so blew me away that I couldn’t stand still. I walked all the way home, about five miles.

Despite never having been a Russian man, much less a 19th Century impoverished criminal racked with paranoia, I deeply felt the impoverishment, the paranoia, and the guilt of Rodian Raskolnikov.  His agony was felt deep in my guts.

This article by Molly Worthen sparked today’s post.  She interviewed scholars and students for her article and writes this:

This is the gift of liberal education: the invitation to read a book and think about both the variety and the common threads of human experience across time, space and culture. “Empathy extends beyond trying to put yourself in other people’s shoes,” said Ms. Holloway, the student at Oberlin. “Success is not part of that definition, really. The act of listening is a form of that empathy. You’re willing to attempt to understand.”

Reading authors whose life experiences are totally different from our own is priceless for bolstering our ability to empathize – although having empathy is not enough in terms of changing the world.  See yesterday’s post.

All their lives, People of Color in the United States have been given reading assignments, book club suggestions, and everyday reading materials that portray the life experiences of White People.  To Kill a Mockingbird. Romeo and Juliet. The Hardy Boys. Lord of the Flies.  The Great Gatsby.  All “classics” to be sure.

On today’s high school reading lists, students might also find Song of Solomon, The Joy Luck Club, Persepolis, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao on their reading lists and yet we can do better.  There are so many new novels by people and about people whose life experiences show White People a different reality.

If you are interested in some small semblance of walking in another person’s shoes whose life might be very different from yours, consider these excellent books by authors of color.  I dare you not to be moved in your gut.

  • The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
  • The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coats
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • The Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
  • The Other Americans by Laila Lalami

There are literally an endless list of novels to read that exquisitely take the reader to a new place with a new lens.  Empathy isn’t everything but reading novels by authors whose lives don’t look like our own is one way to nourish it.

Image is a pencil drawing of the lead character of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky by an unknown artist. The name Raskolnikov means “schismatic.”

4 responses to “Empathy Week: Literature by People Whose Lives Don’t Look Like Ours Builds Empathy

  1. And not just novels, although those are often the best way straight into the heart, but travel books as well. I’m reading Horizon by Barry Lopez right now and his relating of the Toole and Inuit people of the Arctic circle is intriguing. Whichever route is taken, finding our commonalities across distance and time and “foreignness” expands our minds and our world. What a blessing to have these windows!


  2. I have learned so much by watching Henry Louis Gates’ PBS program, Finding Your Roots. Immigration. Slavery. Poverty. Mistreatment. Injustice. Looking at who we are by looking at where we came from.


  3. Jan, when I retired two years ago, I made a goal to read a book set in every country and every state. So far I’ve read books set in over 50 countries and almost 30 states. These books have been written by people of many races and faiths. Literature has opened my eyes to many parts of the world and this country. Thanks for your recommendations. I’ve read a few of those but will check out a few more.


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