By Katie Slott, Collection Development
Sympathy refers to the ability to take part in someone else’s feelings, mostly by feeling sorrowful about their misfortune. It’s something we express when a loved one has passed, or a big life event doesn’t go as planned. It’s often easy to feel sympathy for people involved in horrific situations, like those that have been in the national news these past many months. Empathy is much more difficult. Empathy is a term we use for the ability to understand other people’s feelings as if we were having them ourselves.
How do we go from sympathy, or feeling sorry for terrible events, to empathy, or fighting for real change as if we’re the one who’s been hurt? One option: read. But it matters what you read.
I grew up pretty sheltered in a small town in the Midwest. My window to the greater world was books. And, yes, I got into scrapes with Anne and discovered the secret garden with Mary. I moved to yet another home in the middle of nowhere with Laura and worried about the Murrys’ missing father with Meg and Charles Wallace. I traveled to Narnia with the Pevensie children and learned what it was like to have sisters through Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.
George R.R. Martin wrote, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” I have met lifelong friends in books and had my life—and my view of the world—changed through knowing them. As I grew older, I discovered that the classics of my childhood were problematic: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writings on Native Americans; C.S. Lewis’ asides about the Pevensie sisters, taken in contrast with his portrayal and expectations of the Pevensie brothers. J.K. Rowling’s public comments on transgender people (and her unwillingness to engage in a positive way within her stories with race, gender, and LGBTQ issues).
I am not here to cancel your childhood favorites, my friends. In fact, if you look at my bookshelf right now, you would find every single one of the titles I mentioned above. However, as a public librarian I am aware that I serve everyone in my community, and guess what? Not everyone looks, thinks, acts, or feels just like me.
So on my shelf you would also find stories that point to a wider lens on the world. In these stories, I have found beauty and wonder and pain and agony. I came into my power with Zelie and found my voice with Xiomara. I was immersed in the stories of Alex Haley’s ancestors in Roots and Queen. I held my breath as Aristotle realized that he was in love with his best friend, Dante. I agonized with Starr Carter over the death of her best friend, Kahlil. I waited excitedly to discover the secret identity of Simon’s pen pal. I traveled the Underground Railroad with Cora. In short, I found empathy. In vicariously inhabiting these characters so unlike me—people of color, magicians, poets, Latinx, queer, the enslaved—I found a different way to be. To think. To love.
So, if you’re feeling—like me—a need to understand just what people are marching, protesting, calling their representatives, organizing, speaking out, and voting for, check out one of these titles. My hope is that, as they did for me, these characters will speak to you. That they’ll show you their story, and that, in reading, you may inhabit their lives for a short time, and share their emotions. Because empathy is the path to understanding, and understanding is the way to fight for their rights like they are your very own.