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!

A Balm in Gilead, parts 1-11

A few people asked me to link all eleven posts I wrote about my dad and the novel Gilead into one easily shareable entry. Here it is:

A Balm in Gilead, part 11

Gilead is a book from the point of view of a character named John Ames who is old and dying. The whole story is him writing to his very young son about life. This series of posts is about the notes my own father made in a copy of the novel before his passing. For more background, feel free to read the past posts in this series:

A Balm in Gilead, part 1

A Balm in Gilead, part 2

A Balm in Gilead, part 3

A Balm in Gilead, part 4

A Balm in Gilead, part 5

A Balm in Gilead, part 6

A Balm in Gilead, part 7

A Balm in Gilead, part 8

A Balm in Gilead, part 9

A Balm in Gilead, part 10

This will be the last post concerning my dad and the novel Gilead.

I’ve scoured the book trying to find even the faintest hint of a mark Dad left. I’ve looked and re-looked for any sign of underlining, brackets, dog ears, annotation in the margins, or even stray marks. The following excerpt is the last one.

It’s probably not surprising that this is sad for me. I’ve really enjoyed the time I spent pouring through Gilead, thinking about what the author wrote and how my dad interpreted it. This experience–that is, reading and pondering the text and notes–has been more powerful for me than writing. I’m not eloquent enough to fully explain my thoughts about the book or my dad. The ideas and feelings are a mess within me–it’s difficult to type them out. For all you writers, I’m sure you can empathize.

So it’s with a heavy heart I transcribe this last paragraph my dad marked with a bracket on page 142.

I say this because I really feel as though I’m failing, and not primarily in the medical sense. And I feel as if I am being left out, as though I’m some straggler and people can’t quite remember to stay back for me. I had a dream like that last night. I was Boughton [the narrator’s best friend] in the dream, for all purposes. Poor old Boughton.

There are still about 105 pages left in the book after this passage, but that’s the last thing he marked. If this blog post were a movie, the last quote would be about living life to the fullest or something like that. Instead, the narrator feels as if he is being left out and the world is moving on.

This may make my dad sound feeble. Although he was definitely weakened by his 2008 injury, he was by no means a weak man.

As we get older and watch the world zoom on without pausing, I can imagine it’s a  disorientating experience. My dad wanted nothing of cell phones, Facebook, LinkedIn, or any other new fangled creation. In addition to the j-curve of new technology and proliferation of information, my dad was troubled by all the bad things he saw or read in the news. I heard him say he was truly sorry his generation couldn’t have handed me and my children a better world. He talked about this often, as a matter of fact, and I’m certain he truly meant it.

So, that’s why I think he marked this excerpt. In many ways the world is becoming a more and more remarkable place. In other ways, however, the events we must bear witness to are almost too much.

I can’t end this post without talking more about Tom Johnson. When I sat in his seat at his dinner table after his passing, it seemed to me he was just at the supermarket, picking up a last minute item for dinner. At times, I thought he’d walk through his door any minute. I told this to my wife, and she admitted she felt the same way.

I’m such a lucky person to have been raised by my dad. Although no upbringing is perfect, I can honestly say I didn’t deserve all the love and support he gave me throughout my life. He was a blessing from God. I could have been any other man’s son, and I was lucky enough to be given Tom as my dad.

He was full of integrity and extremely humble. I knew what integrity was–even if I didn’t show it–at a young age because of his direction. This is also a blessing. I’m reminded of Proverbs 1:8, 9: “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching. They will be a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck.” I’m one of the fortunate ones who can read this verse and identify with its truth.

I guess I’m writing all this to say four simple words.

I miss my dad.

In spite of this, I feel a tremendous outpouring of grace on my life at the moment–I have ever since my dad went to heaven. I remember his life, almost seventy years, and I fully realize how short and precious our days on this earth are. We don’t have time to hold grudges. We’re wasting our minutes if we gossip or lie or covet or busy ourselves with any other actions that are unequivocally selfish. Our days have a number, and as each one closes, we are one step closer to seeing our Creator.

We need to love one another. We need to show love to all those around us. We need to love the people who are easy to love and the ones who are difficult. We need to love the orphans and widows as well as the prisoners. Jesus did this. He is our ultimate role model–the most important figure in all of history.

I’m giving myself over to sentimentality, and I try not to do this when I write, but I can’t help it now. I hope this can be excused. All I know is that the moment before I die, whenever that is, if I have time to look back upon my life I hope I showed a lot more love than hatred. I hope I was kind and not sarcastic, giving and not stingy, caring and not apathetic. Life is too short to be selfish. I need to be a better person, starting right now.

It’s on my heart right to share one last excerpt. It’s from my favorite book, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I can picture the last page of the novel right now. The protagonist, Alyosha Karamazov, is leaving the burial of a young boy named Ilusha. Alyosha is talking with many of Ilusha’s young friends and asks them to remember the departed boy right now in the present moment. They respond:

“Yes, yes, eternally, for ever and ever,” shouted all the boys, their voices ringing and their faces radiant.

“We shall remember his face, his clothes, even his little boots, and his little coffin…”

“We’ll remember, we will!” shouted the boys again. “He was brave, he was good.”

“Oh, how I love him!” exclaimed Kolya.

(Alyosha speaking) “Ah, my children, my dear friends, don’t be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something noble and true!”

“Yes, Yes” repeated the boys ecstatically.

“Karamazov, we all love you,” erupted one voice, apparently that of Kartashov.

“We love you, we do” they all joined in. Many of them had tears glistening in their eyes.

“Hurrah for Karamazov!” Called Kolya, carried away.

“And eternal remembrance for the dead boy!” said Alyosha emotionally.

“Eternal remembrance!” the boys joined in again.

“Karamazov,” cried Kolya, “is it true what religion teaches, that we shall all rise from the dead, that we shall live again and see one another again…?”

“Certainly, we shall be resurrected, certainly, we shall see one another again and we shall tell one another happily, joyfully, everything that has happened,” replied Alyosha, half laughing and half overcome with emotion.

“How marvelous that’ll be,” burst out Kolya.

“Well now let’s have done with talking and go to his wake…” laughed Alyosha… “Now we’ll all walk hand in hand.”

“And always, all our lives, we’ll walk hand in hand! Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya shouted again ecstatically, and once more, all the boys echoed his cry.

May we all have loved ones at our funeral who act like this. May we all be brave and good. May we not be afraid of life. Today, may we all do something noble and true. May we love all those we see and all those who have come before us. May that love be generous and kind.

God, thanks for my dad. Thanks for all your blessings. May I treat everyone as you would have me treat them. 


Father to son

Son to father

Fly the huntsman

Carry the fire

All rolls on

The world will yearn

The Circle widens

The pages turn

The Interring

A Balm in Gilead, part 10

Gilead is a book from the point of view of a character named John Ames who is old and dying. The whole story is him writing to his very young son about life. This series of posts is about the notes my own father made in a copy of the novel before his passing. For more background, feel free to read the past posts in this series:

A Balm in Gilead, part 1

A Balm in Gilead, part 2

A Balm in Gilead, part 3

A Balm in Gilead, part 4

A Balm in Gilead, part 5

A Balm in Gilead, part 6

A Balm in Gilead, part 7

A Balm in Gilead, part 8

A Balm in Gilead, part 9

This next passage is difficult to tackle. I’m going to have to transcribe almost a whole page of Gilead in order for what my dad wrote to make sense. This is asking a lot of you, dear reader, to venture through a large excerpt of a novel you’ve probably never opened. But, heck, if you’ve read all the way to this post–part 10!–then I guess you’re game.

Sometime I almost forget my purpose in writing this, which is to tell you things I would have told you if you had grown up with me, things I believe it becomes me as a father to teach you. There are the Ten Commandments, of course, and I know you will have been particulary aware of the Fifth Commandment, Honor your father and mother. I draw attention to it because Six, Seven, Eight, and Nine are enforced by the criminal and civil laws and by social custom. The Tenth Commandment is unenforceable, even by oneself, even with the best will in the world, and it is violated constantly. I have been candid with you about my suffering a good deal at the spectacle of all the marriages, all the households overflowing with children… not because I wanted them, but because I wanted my own. I believe the sin of covetise is the pang of resentment you may feel when even the people you love best have what you want and don’t have. From the point of view of loving your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18), there is nothing that makes a person’s fallenness more undeniable than covetise–you feel it right in your heart, in your bones. In that way it is instructive. I have never really succeeded in obeying that Commandment, Thou shalt not covet. I avoided the experience of disobeying by keeping to myself a good deal, as I have said. I am sure I would have labored in my vocation more effectively if I had simply accepted covetise in myself as something inevitable, as Paul seems to do, as the thorn in my side, so to speak. “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” I have found that difficult too often. I was much better at weeping with those who weep. I don’t mean that as a joke, but it is kind of funny, when I think about it.

Here’s what my dad wrote in the lefthand margin near the end of this paragraph:

“Easier to be sad with people than happy with people.”

Here’s what I love about my dad: He was very, very honest.

I’m picturing him during his last ten years in Henderson, NV, sitting in his backyard, overlooking Las Vegas Boulevard with a glass of port in his hand. His legs are crossed. He’s slouching in his chair. The hand that holds the glass is tucked up by his face as he bends his elbow in a way I’ve never seen anyone else find as comfortable as he did.

During these times, my dad would admit stuff like what he wrote next to the above paragraph. I love him for this because it’s so true. We find ourselves very easily grieving with those who are grieving. We can do this for days on end. But are we rejoicing with those who are rejoicing for days on end? It’s an interesting question to ponder.

Someone could easily write 5,000 words regarding the whole above excerpt. Someone could write volumes and volumes about the Ten Commandments–particularly the Fifth One. And covetise? If every incident of covetise were written in books, those books would probably fill a large portion of the Milky Way.

I like what the narrator says, “I am sure I would have labored in my vocation more effectively if I had simply accepted covetise in myself as something inevitable, as Paul seems to do, as the thorn in my side, so to speak.” It’s a very humble statement. It’s like what the Pope said about himself recently: “I am a sinner whom the Lord as looked upon.” What else can be said? This gives way to grace. It’s the only way to true peace, even in the midst of the covetise.

It’s something I’d like to talk with my dad about in his backyard.

A Balm in Gilead, part 9

Gilead is a book from the point of view of a character named John Ames who is old and dying. The whole story is him writing to his very young son about life. This series of posts is about the notes my own father made in a copy of the novel before his passing. For more background, feel free to read the past posts in this series:

A Balm in Gilead, part 1

A Balm in Gilead, part 2

A Balm in Gilead, part 3

A Balm in Gilead, part 4

A Balm in Gilead, part 5

A Balm in Gilead, part 6

A Balm in Gilead, part 7

A Balm in Gilead, part 8

My dad put a bracket around this paragraph on page 98:

Well, I’ll confess I did feel a certain embarrassment about [my grandfather]. It may even have been shame. And it was not the first time I had felt it, either. But I was a child at the time, and it seems to me he might have made some allowance. These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.

I’d wager it’s safe to say most young people are embarrassed by a parent or grandparent at least once in their lives. I’m a junior high teacher, and I was once a young person, so I have the credentials to make this statement.

I cringe when I read the first few sentences from the above passage, knowing it’s a possibility my dad was thinking of me when he marked the paragraph. Someday my son and daughter will want me to leave them alone because of embarrassment. Like many things, it’s a cycle. We are embarrassed by those who love us most dearly and then are only able to fully appreciate them with the help of time and a large measure of experience.

The end of this paragraph is incredibly incisive. At times we try really hard to be better. For example, when we attempt to have every word we say full of integrity, then our speech is on our mind all day. When someone knows us well and what we’re capable of saying, we may feel cheated since we’re trying so hard to be better.

This is life. However futile it may be at times, we must always try to be better. We can’t wake up and think, I’m just going to be me today–no matter how horrid that might be. No, we remain patient at every red light, nod understandingly to the stressed coworker, and return home to a family that deserves and needs our unmitigated love.

When someone calls us out on being who we truly are, even when we are making a valiant effort to be better, it’s important to throw our hands in the air and laugh. Yes, you know me. I wish you knew me as someone better. Please give me a little credit for trying.

And even if you don’t, I’ll keep trying.