world book day reading fiction inspires empathy

Celebrate World Book Day: Reading Fiction Inspires Empathy

“Fiction is empathy’s gateway drug.” Jamil Zaki’s statement is bold. But consider this: we can live a different life with every book we open. By sharing emotions–the same pain, sadness, or joy–fiction inspires empathy. Fiction places us at the heart of a character’s life experiences.

Yesterday was World Book Day, an international UNESCO holiday. The perfect day to celebrate the importance of books and how they inspire connection.

Each year, on 23 April, celebrations take place all over the world to recognize the scope of books–a link between the past and the future, a bridge between generations and across cultures.

Living Another Life

In his book, The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, Zaki elaborates, “Novels and stories give people a chance to experience countless lives.”

Reading a book that completely draws you in is an impactful experience. It transports you to a different world to live another life. There is nothing I treasure more than a book that can accomplish that. You know the feeling, right? That book you just can’t put down. The one you dread turning the last page.

How does fiction inspire empathy?

First, let’s define empathy. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”

Now, let’s think about our reading experiences. Are there any books that caused you to cry? I vividly remember sobbing while reading the last pages of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Or have you ever felt frightened? I was so scared reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula that I could only read during the day.

Sharing emotions with others, experiencing their feelings–that’s empathy.

How Does It Translate to Real Life?

We can probably all recollect a book that caused us to feel deeply. But how does that impact us in our daily lives? According to Zaki, studies have shown that “avid readers have an easier time identifying others’ emotions than people who read less.”

And in a study by Mar and Oatley, they found, “Engaging in the simulative experiences of fiction literature can facilitate the understanding of others who are different from ourselves and can augment our capacity for empathy and social inference.”

To simplify, reading stories can help us better understand those who are different from us. And if we can understand someone, isn’t it easier to be kinder to them?

Fiction Inspires Action

Some may argue that even though we may feel more empathy, it doesn’t spur real action or change. I disagree. In my own experience, reading others’ stories has stirred compassion in me and caused me to take more interest in actual situations that were comparable to the characters’ plights. I am more inclined to attempt to identify with others since I have been able to connect with characters.

Zaki explains further, “These experiences are “contact lite”: giving readers a taste of outsiders’ lives, without the burden of real interaction. But they can still pave the way for caring about real outsiders.”

A War for Kindness highlighted the perfect example of fiction inspiring action: the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on The Civil War.

Harriet Beecher Stowe is well-known for writing the classic, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. According to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Stowe was commissioned by the abolitionist newspaper, The National Era, to “write a piece that would paint a word picture of slavery.”

uncle tom's cabin from the National Era
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in The National Era (1851)

The series of installments were so popular that they were eventually published as a two-volume book in 1852 and became an international bestseller. Stowe’s writing exposed society to a completely novel perspective: life as a slave.

Zaki further explained, “It’s [Uncle Tom’s Cabin] impact was so profound that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe, he quipped, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.””

Make Time for Fiction–It Benefits Everyone

When you contemplate reading from this kindness/empathy perspective, it suddenly becomes even more important to make time for it. Reading is more than just an entertaining pastime. It’s a risk-free way of expanding our compassion for others and experiencing empathy.

We can be any gender, race, age, socio-economic status, or religion depending on the book we choose. We can escape into any world, any life.

Are there people you have difficulty understanding? Do you find yourself silently (or vocally for that matter) casting judgment on anyone?

A Challenge for You 

Read a novel about them. Take a few minutes to research a fiction book that explores the world and life from their point of view. Perhaps you will discover a new and different perspective. Or maybe you will find you have more in common that you would have ever realized.

Kindness Books for Kids – Check out my post with kindness book reviews.

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