Reading is the key to empathy

Guest writer Alyssa Harry discusses the link between reading and empathy. A thought provoking read!
If you would like to guest write for the World Literacy Foundation, please email jade@worldliteracyfoundation.org

I hadn’t given much thought to being able to read and write until I started studying at university. That first year, in the whirlwind of new ideas and thinkers, a thought kept creeping up in my mind. “What if I didn’t have this chance? Why am I here, rather than someone else?” I felt incredibly fortunate, but also incredibly sad, because I knew that the education I was being offered was for many people just a dream.

The ability to read and write is one we often take for granted. Whether due to disability, culture, or financial disadvantage, there are still far too many children and adults globally who lack these essential skills.

The act of reading is intricately tied to empathy, because through reading we begin to understand lives and perspectives other than our own. In books, we can get to know other people, places, and times. Empathy in reading is the ability to understand and share the feelings of the protagonist, the author, of the human condition itself.

As is always the case, John Green was able to explain my thoughts about the matter much more succinctly when he said in an episode of Crash Course Literature that “reading is always an act of empathy. It’s always an imagining of what it’s like to be someone else.” I truly believe that reading and the ability to write fosters the strongest forms of empathy. People who love to read are people who care deeply about the lives and experiences of others. This, I think, is the mystery and magic of literacy.

How else could one travel as far as the Congo or Venice, back in time to 18th century Iceland or forward to the not-too-distant future – in one afternoon for those who are keen – if it were not made possible in literature? What is printed on the page becomes true to us for that brief moment of reading, and the world created by the author becomes our own. We are transported. It is an exchange between reader and author, reader and character, even. And in that act of reading we commit to entering the mind or the life of another.

By reading stories, we are able to hear from people who lived before us, or from people living on different continents, and we are able to ask ourselves, “What was life like for this person, in these circumstances?” When reading The Catcher in the Rye, we understand (or perhaps remember) what it is like to be that misfit teenager, the adolescent in a confusing world. Reading Pride and Prejudice, we feel the pressures of society and how women were expected to fit the mould in 19th century England. We enter the mind of an escaped slave and haunted woman when we see through the eyes of Sethe in Beloved.

When characters experience death, loss, or heartbreak, we experience it too. Their thoughts become our own. We’ve all felt that desperation to repeat the past, to fix what cannot be repaired, like Jay Gatsby longs to do. By learning more about Gatsby we learn about loss, persistence, and a little more about ourselves. The ultimate job of the reader is to listen and interpret. To ask, “What is this author telling me, or asking me to imagine?”

These stories are not just stories, but also windows into other worlds and other psyches. They are the access point from which the empowered reader is able to gaze, to question, to learn. The texts we read over a lifetime provide us with the information that makes up who we are and what we believe. Literacy means having the world open to you and having access to limitless ideas. The knowledge we gain from reading empathetically is invaluable. We are all connected and we all have stories to share.

By Alyssa Harry.

Find Alyssa on Twitter: @alyssakate19