Empathy vs. emulate

I’m kind of partaking in an online (twitter) book group reading “Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World” by Maryanne Wolf. I say kind of, because I’m a couple of weeks behind the rest and not in the position to scramble to catch up. The latest letter considers the power of reading to engender empathy. And yes, I think any avid reader will concur that while reading one becomes immersed in the lives of others and are buffeted by the emotions and events of the book etc. and as a result hopefully develop more understanding if not empathy for the “type” projected in the book.

Lately I’ve been looking for something else – I get empathy and think it is a wonderful thing, but at the same time I fear it has a tinge of the abstract and dare I even say superiority about it? Or is it just that I’ve spent too much time around very empathetic but extremely privileged people? That sometimes the idea of empathy seems a little mired in superiority? I’m looking more for literature where I want to emulate the protagonist because of the way they are. Is it hope or inspiration I’m after? Am I becoming nostalgic for a youth of Heidi and Pollyanna and Anne of Green Gables, where an independent spirit or stubbornness were the worst flaws one encountered? Am I tired of grit and realistic messiness? Or is it a backlash of a world sullied by the likes of Potus 45? I’m of a certain age I guess where those were the aims of literature, – to make us better people. But if I google “Literature to make us better people” the results are all about empathy and theory of mind rather than emulation.  I want to be around people that I can aspire to be more like, and every now and then I want to read books where the hero is a hero, preferably a kind and compassionate one, without the backing of immense wealth, nor with the adversity of extreme poverty. Naturally there are any one of a thousand “self-help” books one could turn to, but why are these a category separate to literature? Because life is more complex than a “how to”?

This is not to say that I don’t think that I and my students should be reading widely and have access to life in all its gut and glory – Chris Crutcher is visiting our school next month and I’ve been following with interest his involvement in the discussion on “Light and Hope in YA literature” as a response to “the unbearable darkness of YA literature“.  I just wonder about literate voyeurism and whether it truly does create empathy or rather moral superiority, or allow for moral self-licensing?

Just a few 5am thoughts.

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