Rose MG: Let’s Talk About Reading and Empathy!

This past summer I spent a week or two staying with my Aunt, Uncle, and cousin, Belicia. Belicia is about twelve, and while for most of her life she was not super into reading, recently she has developed a keen appetite for the pastime. She is now very into young adult series like The Hunger Games, but my aunt Sandra told me she also loves memoirs about people who do good in the world. Belicia likes reading about people with totally different viewpoints from her own.

 

What I found interesting, and relevant to this response paper, was the difference Belicia found in reading these books and in watching television. While she had grown used to the violent images on TV and in movies, the similar violence she read in books was shocking and terrible to her. She went to her mom in protest, “This is terrible!” Her mom responded, “isn’t it the same as what we see in Law and Order?” It was. At this, Belicia told her mother “wow, why did you let me watch that kind of thing?”

 

I’m not telling this story to iterate some moralistic tale about violence in the media. Rather, I’m telling it to say something about the power books have to create empathy, even in those who may be numb and unresponsive to certain kinds of violence. It reminds me of a graduate thesis I read about that studies books’ effects on addressing rape culture in high schools. It studied how reading the book Speak, a story of a high school girl who experienced sexualized violence, in high schools inspired empathy in the boys in the class who at first didn’t get what the big deal was about the traumatic incident the protagonist experienced.

 

The goal of my project would be to make counterhegemonic stories about people with marginalized identities more widely available and widely funded. Because the publishing industry prioritizes profit, they tend to invest minimally in works by diverse authors. Worried these books won’t sell as well as the stories about the types of characters they have a history of marketing, publishing companies often stick to a select smaller number of “niche” stories (read, books about queer folk, people of color, practice non Christian religions, etc.) The structure of my organization/project/company would be multifold. One prong would consist of a publishing house that focuses on publishing these alternative narratives. Another prong would be to provide funding to the writers of these narratives. The third prong would be to go global. In class we’ve talked about the influence travel can have in understanding other cultures. Adeel Zeb also said as much when he came to speak to our class. I would seek to create funding initiatives for authors of other cultures, and make translating these works a high priority. Finally: marketing, marketing, marketing! It is so important that once these books are published they be in the public eye at an immense scale.

 

Will the million dollars cover this entire venture? It definitely won’t. But I would be sure to invest in some excellent business consultation, and try to figure out how to grow this fund along with this growing project. In the meantime, we would see what could be done with the current funds.

Will all this create “peace” in this country, or even eventually globally? It definitely won’t lead to what many commonly think of as world peace. It won’t end wars. It won’t reconcile governments. Hopefully, though, it will plant the seeds of empathy and create discourse between those who see each other as other. Many people don’t make any effort to understand otherness. Many don’t understand why doing so is necessary. But reading does create empathy even when understanding is not the reader’s goal. And I do think fostering this kind of approach to empathy is a worthwhile goal.