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.


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!

Try empathy

I remember the first time I stopped treating sympathy and empathy as synonyms. I was attending a police academy in Dublin, CA, and a firefighter visited us cadets to discuss the basics of paramedics. He said we would someday come across people in great physical and mental anguish, and in preparation, we needed to cultivate a way to mentally approach their pain. He then went on to explain that sympathy is when you feel badly for a person, and empathy is when you put yourself in their shoes and feel their pain.

It had never occurred to me that feeling sorry for someone was not at the same level of caring as experiencing someone else’s sorrow and allowing that hurt to permeate your heart. Then I remembered junior year English class when I read Atticus Finch’s words in To Kill a Mockingbird:

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

If you can put yourself in someone else’s place and truly understand why they committed a crime, hurt another person, continually allow another person to hurt them, etc., then you’ve found your way from sympathy to empathy. The following video does a better job than I ever could in explaining how to be empathetic:

I don’t even know what to say right now, but I’m so glad you told me.

Empathy is very important in the field of education. Classroom teachers are overwhelmed, and instructional/technology leaders must have empathy for everything teachers are going through. Without empathy, connections aren’t made, and without connections, many teachers will not want to attend professional development sessions, be patient with technology, switch to Common Core, or try any of the myriad approaches that could be helpful in improving how they operate.

I recently visited a classroom in which the teacher was fed up. A computer program she was expected to use on a daily basis was not working effectively, and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She began crying, explaining the pressure she felt with the many changes with which she grappled. She ran through the list of items we’re all familiar with that teachers face, and it quickly became apparent that there was nothing I could say to make her feel better. What she wanted was someone to listen–someone who cared. The only thing I said when she was done sharing was a paraphrase from the above video: “I’m so sorry, and I’m really glad you told me about all of this.”

The thing is, I’m not equipped with the words that can fix all her woes. I can’t modify Common Core or reprogram a company’s glitchy software. What I can do is listen, make a connection, and let others be heard. Educational leaders want results, and oftentimes we push too hard during PD sessions or classroom visits. It’s important to remember that empathy can go a long way toward attaining our instructional goals, for teachers and students.

Learning and the empathy muscle

There are times when learning can be thrilling. Maybe you’re enthralled with golf, or perhaps there’s a dance move you’re mastering. The endeavors we love make time fly.

But no one ever said that learning is comfortable.

A lot of times, learning can be downright grueling–especially when we aren’t interested in the subject. If you’re an adult, you probably remember being bored at some point between your K-12 education.

That’s why it’s so important for teachers to continually learn–the process not only builds new skills, but also strengthens the empathy muscle that gets flabby when we forget what it’s like to be a newbie.

As a matter of fact, strengthening the empathy muscle is good in all areas of life.