It is often said that reading makes us better, kinder people.
Many articles expound on how the act of reading benefits the mind and body by decreasing stress levels, teaching us about other people and cultures, and introducing us to new things, thereby expanding our minds and our conceptions of what’s possible.
In an article in Science, Emanuele Castano and David Comer Kidd presented evidence that reading (in particular, reading works of literary fiction) increases one’s empathy by exercising one’s ability to walk in someone else’s shoes. I would say that the reverse is also true: the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes makes you a better reader, one better equipped to empathize with the characters on the page.
If you don’t believe me, try this simple exercise:
1.) Think of the last book of fiction you read (or the one you’re currently reading). Imagine for a second that you’re the main character. You have a new name. A new face. Very likely, you come from a different class, race, or gender and live in a different city, working a different job. Maybe you’re too young to have a job, or maybe you’re retired. Make a list of all the ways in which you are different now.
2.) Now consider what an average day looks like in your new life as this main character. What do you do? Who do you spend your time with? Write a journal entry (of at least 500 words) relating the events of the day, going into as much or as little detail as you like.
3.) Read your journal entry. What decisions did you make about the way you lived your life? Did you enjoy it? If not, think about some of the things you could have done differently, the changes you might have made, and the obstacles that prevented you from doing so.
Now that you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes, you see for yourself the power of empathy to change the way we think about others. In my class, Exercises in Empathy, we’ll learn how to harness that power and use it in our own writing.
Ruth Joffre is the author of the forthcoming Night Beast and Other Stories, which launches here at at Hugo House on May 10. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Kenyon Review, The Masters Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Mid-American Review, Nashville Review, Copper Nickel, DIAGRAM, The Offing, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others, and her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner and Drunken Boat. Her nonfiction and criticism have appeared in The Millions, The Rumpus, Kenyon Review Online, Colorado Review, and The Establishment, among others. Born and raised in Northern Virginia, she graduated with honors from Cornell University and earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.