11 fictional books than can improve empathy

I’ve written about empathy recently here, here, and here. In this post, I’d like to share some books I think can help cultivate empathy. Notice they are all fictional. If you see an article that says: “Come see the 11 best how-to books on strengthening your empathy!”, you should be leery. Explaining to someone how to be empathetic–or even why they should be empathetic–is ineffective. People care by hearing stories. This is a tried-and-true method that’s worked throughout the centuries. Facts often fail in creating empathy. Tell me the statistics of what’s going on in Syria, and I’ll feel sorry for the people who are suffering. Tell me a story about a family’s journey from their home in Syria to their place of refugee in a different country, and I’ll cry and want to know where to donate.

Empathy helps in many professions: medicine, law enforcement, paramedics. Teachers need it on a continual basis, especially at the end of January. Studies have shown that teachers’ morale is at its lowest point January and February. If this is true for you, hopefully a book or two on this list will be a reminder about how important you are in the classroom:

1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The character Atticus Finch has probably done more to show me how to be a good human being than I’ve found in most other American literature. From his bravery in the face of danger to his tender love for his children, Atticus Finch is someone you need to know if you’re actively seeking a more empathetic heart.

2. The Karamazov Brothers (also known as The Brothers Karamazov) by Fyodor Dostoevsky

A masterpiece. I won’t explicitly state that about the other books listed here, although some of them very well are. Similar to Atticus Finch, the character of Alyosha is an example of goodness in a sometimes dark and confusing world. There are many themes that run through the novel, but the ones that stuck with me concern life, death, loving those around us, and living a moral life so that when we die, people are sad that we’re gone and rejoice for having known us. The last page of the book is the best I’ve ever read, and all the love that brims the readers’ hearts at the end of the story is a testament to Dostoevsky’s genius.

3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

This book is special to me because I’m a son and a father to a son. Understanding the love your parents gave you, and realizing how difficult it is to raise a child, is humbling and naturally leads to empathy. The Road displays this truth during the harshest of conditions. Both my dad and I read this, and I included an example from the book in the eulogy I wrote for his funeral. (Here it is if you’d like to read the eulogy in its entirety.) The Road encapsulates the father/son relationship very well in this excerpt: ‘He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.’

4. Stoner by John Williams

Stoner is not a novel for everyone. The main character, William Stoner, is not as lovable as Atticus Finch or Alyosha, but he shows the reader a way to live in a world where nothing goes smoothly. Even when Stoner makes mistakes, you empathize because John Williams describes him so perfectly. The world is unforgiving–sometimes we make decisions that reap terrible consequences, and sometimes bad stuff just happens. If you make it all the way through Stoner, you’ll feel like you got to know a man whose story pulls you in, breaks your heart, and sets you off wanting to avoid similar mistakes.

5. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Like The Road, Gilead is about a father and a son–but that’s where the similarities end. Gilead is the story of a Congregationalist minister named John Ames who, at an advanced age, writes his thoughts concerning life to his young son. This book also struck a cord with me because of my relationship with my dad, which I wrote about extensively beginning with this post. Here’s what a great book does: It helps you see other people in a different light and love them more. Gilead does this and more.

6. The Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Similar to To Kill a Mockingbird, you probably read this novel during high school. If so, you may remember it for depicting the depravity that humanity can fall into given the opportunity. The same can be said for The Road, but I’d argue that even though both novels leave you feeling almost hopeless because of the cruelness of people, you nevertheless walk away from the stories with the understanding that the tiny spark of your existence can make a difference in making this world kinder. Reading The Lord of the Flies and The Road together, which are both short books, would be a powerful dosage of empathy serum.

7. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

This is probably the best book concerning war that I’ve ever read. After reading it, you’ll find yourself empathizing with characters you may have never thought possible.

8. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner will probably not be remembered as a classic in the same sense that all the other books listed here will be, but the whole story is about redemption and caring for the well-being of others. It’s also an entertaining read, and if you’ve never seen the movie or heard about the plot, you should go to Amazon and buy it ASAP.

9. Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose

The quintessential story of empathy. Twelve men, serving on a jury, have to decide whether a young man is guilty of murder or not. Their decision has grave consequences, but it takes a lot of talking to soften their hearts enough to care. If there were ever a fictional story that was a microcosm of humanity, this is it.

10. The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy

The Border Trilogy consists of three different books: All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain, which follow the lives of John Grady Cole and Billy Parham; two men who exemplify and redefine what it means to be people of integrity. John Grady Cole may very well become your new literary hero, and Billy Parham’s kindness and decency in the face of loss and loneliness will inspire and break your heart. Taken together, these three books are elevated to the same level as The Karamazov Brothers in how they depict good people traveling through life in a beautiful and unforgiving world.

11. Adventures of Huckleberry Fin by Mark Twain

Like Atticus and Alyosha, Huck is my hero. I said I wouldn’t call any other books on this list a ‘masterpiece’, but I’m sorry–Adventures of Huckleberry Fin is most definitely a masterpiece. The one scene that elevates this story above most others is when Huck makes the choice to save Jim. I’ve written about this here, and I recommend reading about this portion of the book if you’re unfamiliar with Huck’s dilemma. Ernest Hemingway said, ‘All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.’ I wholeheartedly agree.

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That’s it! I hope you find value in the list above and give at least one of the books a try. Of course, not every book above will speak to you as it spoke to me, but I’m certain there’s at least one novel here that’ll inspire you and strengthen your empathy muscle. If this post led to you reading one of the books, please send me an email at riseandconverge@gmail.com and let me know how you liked it. Happy reading!

Creating in the moment

Ray Bradbury is one of my go-to authors when it comes to understanding the creative experience. His advice about constructing the plot of a story mirrors many other great writers. Here’s an excerpt from his introduction to Fahrenheit 451:

I sat down to another nine-day schedule to add words and scenes and turn the novella into a novel of some 50,000 words. Again, an emotional process. Again, as before, I knew that “plot” could not be imagined ahead of the event, that you had to trust your main character to live out his time, to run before you. You followed and found his footprints in the snow. Those footprints, after the fact, found in the snow, are “plot.” But they can only be examined, intelligently, after the emotional sprint, or your actors must quit the stage. In ballet, any dancer who asks himself what step comes next must freeze. Any man who takes a sex manual to bed with him invites frigidity. Dancing, sex, writing a novel–all are a living process, quick thought, emotion making yet more quick thought, and so on, cycling round.

I don’t remember exactly, but I think Cormac McCarthy wrote “plotting is death.” I’m pretty sure Bradbury would agree.

Bradbury says you must “trust your main character to live out his time, to run before you.” In trusting your character, you’re trusting yourself. Sketching the whole plot ahead will make the story artificial. Imagine a slightly older person who has undergone plastic surgery. The lip injection or facelift may be unassuming at first, but upon closer inspection, the work is unnatural.

The dancer who thinks about her next step or the man who brings a sex manual to bed are acting unnaturally as well, so the results won’t be dynamic. Better to live passionately in the moment. This goes also for creating.

 

Save a comma

I find myself believing that punctuation can be used differently for fiction and nonfiction writing.

When writing a post that is nonfiction, I feel obligated to write correctly. That is, putting commas in the correct places, avoiding fragments and run-on sentences, etc. In my fiction writing, however, I find myself following the rules much more loosely. Since I’m creating a world that exists nowhere except in my head, it is as if I have the license to write prose that can–at times–verge into something less concrete and more abstract.

Many American writers are ditching punctuation marks that academics hold dearly. Correct punctuation shows clarity of thought, a professor may say. It is proof a student or researcher took his or her job seriously.

In literature, I find such devotion to traditional rules lacking. Authors such as Kent Haruf and Cormac McCarthy don’t even use quotation marks to signify dialogue. I tried that once, and quickly found I wasn’t good enough to pull it off.

But I like a clean page, avoiding as many commas as possible, when it comes to my fiction writing. Maybe I will even be able to forgo quotation marks someday. Periods and the occasional apostrophe are necessities, however. Semicolons definitely are not.

The blank page

One thing that always amazes me is what appears on the blank page of a computer screen when I am attempting to write. I may have nothing to say–my mind is blank–and then my fingertips touch the keyboard and words I didn’t know I had pop up on the screen.

This happened with the Son of Jesse every morning I sat down to write. I’d read a passage from Scripture and have no idea how I was going to convert it into a chapter of a historical novel. But then, I would start writing, and pretty soon a chapter would form.

Cormac McCarthy once said plotting out a novel is “death”. I think what he meant is that allowing a book to write itself organically by sitting at the typewriter or computer and letting the words flow gives life to the characters, setting, plot, and themes. Even to say, “I’m going to write a story about the bond of a father and son,” may be planning things too far ahead. It might be better to just start writing and find themes as you create the world.

So when a person tells me he or she has nothing to say, I often think about the blank screen. If people just sit down and begin typing, I believe they’d be surprised at the words magically appearing before them.