Research shows that only ten percent of empathy is genetic, the rest is learned as we move through the world interacting with others, either in person or through the written word which allows us to literally experience the world as another person. One of the wonders of the library, is all the people you can become. Choose one book and you are an explorer, charting new territories, another and you are a servant in the household of the Bennett sisters. Although you do not feel the peril, the fear, the day-to-day life as if you were living it, researchers at The University of Toronto have discovered that there is some correlation in reading and experience; the parts of your brain related to running wakes up when you read about someone running, just as your grasping reflex turns on when you read of a character reaching for a light.
Empathy Day, founded in 2017, aims to promote empathy through reading. Though the day is mainly aimed at children and young adult readers (with excellent lists where authors recommend books which promote empathy) in Central Library we have widened the remit, with staff looking at adult fiction, non-fiction and children’s books which have increased their empathy, teaching them what it is like to be someone else.
Doris, Library Advisor at Central Lending and Children’s recommends All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Focusing on the themes of loss, bravery, resilience and kindness, this Pulitzer Prize winning novel tells the story of Marie-Laure, a blind girl who lives with her father and great uncle in Nazi occupied France. The other main character is Werner, a German boy who has grown up in an orphanage with his sister Jutta. Werner is a genius with electricals who attracts the attention of the Hitler Youth.
Frederick, “a reedy boy, thin as a blade of grass, skin as pale as cream”, is another character that readers will empathise with. The fact that he feels he has no agency in his life is heartbreaking. His friendship with Werner is tenderly written and there’s the constant fear that something terrible will happen at their military school.
All the Light We Cannot See is full of haunting three-dimensional characters, with many trying to do good in a terrifying world.
Ania, Library Advisor at Central Lending and Children’s selects two books: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Oscar and the Lady in Pink by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt
Oscar and the Lady in Pink is told from the perspective of a 10-year-old Oscar through his letters to God. He is only ten years old and dying of leukaemia. He has been living in a hospital for a very long time feeling lonely, isolated, and unhappy. His parents, who bring him gifts and surely love him, are uncomfortable during their infrequent visits and have a very little connection with their dying son. They feel hopeless and distant as they avoid the subject of his imminent death.
Things change when Granny Rose, a hospital volunteer, enters Oscar’s life. She brings honesty, warmth and comfort to his life and is the only person willing to listen to Oscar’s questions about death.
My other choice, The Little Prince, I believe, is teaching us the secret of what is really important in life. One of the most significant sentences of the book: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye” summarises the main message of the story. The importance of looking beneath the surface to find the real truth and meaning.
The author, rightly, argues that we often see more clearly if we look with empathy (the heart) than if we look with the eye.
Hope, Library Advisor at Central Lending and Children’s chooses Hard Pushed, a Midwife’s Story by Leah Hazard
The astounding thing about medical memoirs is how practising doctors, nurses and midwifes find the time to write them. Leah Hazard left her career as a journalist to study midwifery after the traumatic birth of her first child, and the less traumatic birth of her second. Throughout the first it was the kindness of midwifes and doctors which made all the difference as she “failed to progress in labour” ending up with an emergency Caesarean.
In Hard Pushed, Hazard tells of the huge and tiny ways she seeks to make a difference to a patient, from cleaning a wound and listening to a woman’s struggles, to identifying full blown sepsis during a routine antenatal appointment.
Leah doesn’t skirt around the terrible pressures on the NHS, the staff shortages, the relentless shifts, the terror when the unit is full and there are only so many midwives on shift, and yet she relates these with empathy, and even good humour.
As someone who’s soon to give birth it’s terrifying reading, but it’s also good to know that midwives like Leah exist, and I am likely to have someone like that looking after me; someone warm, kind, human, who listens and relates.
Emily, Library Advisor at Central Lending and Children’s selects The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom gave me a new outlook on life. It tells the story of the life and death of the main character, who is sent to Heaven, and meets five individuals who significantly impacted the life he had. This book is inspiring as it invites you to open up to the possibility that so many individuals, who you either know or don’t know, have an impact on the life you live. By reading this book, it definitely made me more thoughtful and empathetic to others, because just as so many people can have an impact on your life, you also may impact so many others’ lives; by treating people with kindness and exploring empathy, this impact you have can be positive.
What book would you recommend for Empathy Day?