We read to experience what we do not know.  We write to share what we think we understand.  Learning and sharing constructs leads to literacy and thus begins the formative memes of a shared, and cogent, morality.

On the Scientific American website, Jamil Zaki argues that reading also creates empathy — and the fact that fewer people are reading today emphasises the disconnect between a shared, empathetic, society and a dark hole where everyone is out only for themselves and their own, bitter, self-interest:

The types of information we consume have also shifted in recent decades; specifically, Americans have abandoned reading in droves. The number of adults who read literature for pleasure sank below 50 percent for the first time ever in the past 10 years, with the decrease occurring most sharply among college-age adults. And reading may be linked to empathy. In a study published earlier this year psychologist Raymond A. Mar of York University in Toronto and others demonstrated that the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others. Mar has also shown that adults who read less fiction report themselves to be less empathic.

If we believe reading creates empathy — every society needs some sort of shared, emotional values if it ever hopes to survive its cleaving differences — and if we know fewer people are reading, are we doomed to a crumbling division?

Can we require empathy by forcing people to read in their leisure time?

Are there other ways to create empathy without forcing someone sit down, alone, and become one with the “voice of God” they hear in their head as their mind interprets the reflection of text in their eyes?

Has the move from paper to electrons made us smarter, but less empathetic?

Is empathy tied to truthful learning or is it bound to an ongoing, reflexive, reimagining of life with one starring in a variety of leading roles?

8 Comments

  1. I wonder why people don’t read as much today. I guess that’s what TV and YouTube do for us, right? No thinking necessary. We don’t read to our children and then they have to find other ways to connect and they’re failing.

        1. I think some people romanticize the paper of the book over the coldness of the electronic font — and that might have some influence on the tactile empathy that a hardcopy book can invoke with unique smells, colors and saturations.

  2. I know I’m late to this party, but I wonder if this information is perhaps slightly skewed. Perhaps it is empathic people who end up reading books, rather than book readers becoming empathic. If you’re not capable of empathy in the first place, what fun would reading about the trials and tribulations of anyone else, especially a fictional character?

    Perhaps the drop in literacy/empathizing is indicative of something else entirely, a cultural shift perhaps.

    1. That’s an interesting thought, Katherine, but do you have any empirical evidence for your argument beyond wondering? I quoted a research study published in Scientific American as the basis for my article.