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Reading Cultivates Empathy

In the children’s book Max and Nana Go to the Park, a little boy, Max, falls and scrapes his knee at the playground. He gets an ouchie and Nana makes it all better with a yellow bandaid and a hug. This particular children’s book has been the talk of my almost-two-year-old’s summer. First, Loren has his fair share of tumbles and scrapes and is frequently requesting yellow (his favorite color) bandaids, “like Max and Nana.” Then there’s the reality that whenever we’re at the playground he’ll run to the slide and say, “like Max and Nana,” because Max goes down the slide after he gets his bandaid.

In this book, there is a picture of Max crying after he falls. Most of the time when Loren sees this picture he leans in and presses his cheek against the page. “Are you giving Max a hug?” I ask. His face turns long. “Yeah,” he says empathetically.

From the youngest to the oldest readers, whether you’re two or 102, reading has countless benefits, one of which is growing in our understanding of others. Countless studies have shown a strong correlation between reading literary fiction and greater empathy, but there’s no doubt that certain works of nonfiction may have the same effect. This is especially important and true if the characters we are reading about are different from ourselves.

Reading has the power to immerse us into another character’s mind, allowing us to experience a world that is entirely different than our own; we can experience the world through a different culture, religion, gender, ethnicity, or profession. Reading provides the key to unlock the entirety of the human experience. All you need is a library card.

Max and Nana Go to the Park will likely be at the top of my family’s reading list all summer long. And while my husband and I have nearly memorized the book, we embrace this repetition because each time we turn the pages we know that our son is deepening the empathy he has for the world around him.

If you’re looking for other books to read this summer, perhaps something other than a board book from the children’s section of the library, here are some recommendations from members of the library’s longstanding no obligation book club, Books for Lunch, that are sure to further cultivate your capacity for empathy.

Sheri enjoyed The ADHD Advantage: What You Thought Was a Diagnosis May Be Your Greatest Strength by Dale Archer, MD. She learned that ADHD, while too often stigmatized, can actually be a super power.

Sharon read The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley in which a lonely 91-year-old man with dementia is temporarily able to remember his past and uses the time to investigate the death of his nephew.

Bill liked the Arctic Son: Fulfilling the Dreamby Jean Aspen. In this autobiography, a family ventures into the remote wilderness of Alaska to build a log cabin, hunt for their own food, and experience the dangers and rewards of Alaska’s harsh, breathtaking wilderness.

Jan had good things to say about Mitch Albom’s The Stranger in a Lifeboat, a spiritual novel about a group of people pulling a strange man who claims to be the Lord out of the sea.

Sue read Angeline Boulley’s The Firekeeper's Daughter, a young adult mystery set in Sault Ste. Marie amongst the Ojibwe community. If you’re interested in discussing this book further, be sure to sign up for the library’s next Michigan Notable Book Club on August 24 from 6:00-7:30pm.

Cathy recommends the memoir Furiously Happy: A Funny book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson. The author writes (comically) about her lifelong battle with with depression and anxiety.

Roz read Slow Horses by Mick Herron, a British MI5 spy thriller full of dark humor and amazing interior monologue. She said it was an excellent read. Slow Horses is also newly released as a mini-series on Apple TV+ and Roz says she’ll be watching it soon!

What about you? What you are you reading this summer? How are you cultivating empathy within yourself and the world around you?

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