Human Letters: On Reading and Empathy, or How I Love My Fellow Human Beings in Theory

A editorial in my local newspaper the other day talked about the importance of reading in teaching children empathy. I was thinking about this myself recently, remembering my childhood, and the importance of books in teaching me about being a caring human being.

Raised by a hard working single mom, I learned from her the basics of being polite, being quiet, staying out of trouble, and trying not to piss anyone off. But the larger issues of good and evil, of compassion, empathy, and acting humanely were not discussed over our TV dinners in front of Jeopardy. Those issues I encountered in books, and particularly the books of Madeleine L’Engle.

I credit A wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, The Arm of the Starfish, and The Young Unicorns with teaching me about what I’ll call “humanism,” that is, being an aware and caring human being in the world, taking action on behalf of moral beliefs and in support of kindness, goodness, and for the benefit of my fellow man. I was aware that her work was steeped in her own Christian beliefs. Raised outside of any church, I had read parts of the Bible, and was already, before I knew the word, an agnostic. But I felt she wielded her Christianity in a way that I could accept, could perceive the human concern at its core.

Her work made me a better person, or made me hope to be a better person. Is that not the highest praise one can give to literature?

I just saw some wonderful meditations from  Kenyon Review in 2010 by Dan Beachy-Quick about reading, and need to spend some more time with them. You may want to too:


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