… Reading allows us to try on, for a few moments, what it truly means to be another person, with all the similar and sometimes vastly different emotions and struggles that govern others’ lives.
The reading circuitry is elaborated by such simulations; so also our daily lives, and so also the lives of those who would lead others.
The novelist Jane Smiley worries that it is just this dimension in fiction that is most threatened by our culture: “My guess is that mere technology will not kill the novel. . . . But novels can be sidelined. . . . When that happens, our society will be brutalized and coarsened by people . . . who have no way of understanding us or each other.” It is a chilling reminder of how important the life of reading is for human beings if we are to form an ever more realized democratic society for everyone.
Empathy involves, therefore, both knowledge and feeling. It involves leaving past assumptions behind and deepening our intellectual understanding of another person, another religion, another culture and epoch. In this moment in our collective history, the capacity for compassionate knowledge of others may be our best antidote to the “culture of indifference” that spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Pope Francis describe. It may also be our best bridge to others with whom we need to work together, so as to create a safer world for all its inhabitants. In the very special cognitive space within the reading-brain circuit, pride and prejudice can gradually dissolve through the compassionate understanding of another’s mind.
The whole article is a slow, lovely ode to reading and empathy.
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