Monday, January 30, 2017

Reading Ourselves to Empathy

By Vicki Delany

I enjoyed Rick’s post about Entertaining Yourself.  I was also reminded of Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death.


In that book, Postman worries that we are relying too much on media for information and entertainment, rather than getting it for ourselves via reading and conversation. Postman is talking mostly about television…

“…what happens when politics, journalism, education, and even religion become subject to the demands of entertainment.”

… if anything, his theses seems even more valid today, in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and 24 hour news.


Sure we read books for entertainment, as Rick suggests, but in the pages of a good book, we can’t help being drawn into other worlds, other lives and other experiences. Watch a movie or TV and you see how someone else lives, whether a rich housewife of someplace or other  or a detective in pursuit of a master criminal, but you are NOT THAT PERSON. No matter how good the acting or how dramatic the music, all you are doing is watching someone else do something.

Whereas in a book you can BE THAT PERSON. The difference is critical. Within the pages of a good work of fiction (and heck, often within the pages of a poor work of fiction) you can genuinely be exposed to other people’s thoughts, feeling, and emotions. What that does, what that cannot fail to do, is to create empathy.

And empathy seems to be sorely lacking in some parts of our world today.

As are facts. If you want to understand a complex issue you won’t get it from the TV news or a tweet. You can get the information you need to understand the complexities of an issue and make a decision from a well-researched newspaper article, maybe a TV documentary, but once again, for real comprehension you need a book.


Want to understand the rise of fascism? Not only read fiction such as 1984, but some of the many historical fiction books set in Europe in the late 1930s, and then go on to non-fiction books about the early to mid-twentieth century. One book that got a lot of press late in 2016 is Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich.

A book I keep meaning to re-read is The Magus by John Fowles, which (if I remember correctly) deals with living under fascism and resistance to it.

Worried that maybe we’re slipping back a century to pre-1914? Try Margaret MacMillian’s The War the Ended Peace.

Read: you’ll not only be entertaining yourself but making yourself aware, as well.

P.S. yes, speaking to the choir here, but sometimes we need to be reminded of the things we know. 

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

Excellent post, Vicki! Thanks.