Pages of empathy

On Monday, I’d finished up my first day of the London Book Fair when I spotted a horrifying tweet about the Boston marathon and from that first tweet, the terrible news of the senseless massacre unfolded across the web.  Like everyone, I was shocked and appalled. I lived in Boston for two years during graduate school and its friendly and frank-speaking people welcomed me into my adopted city.  And now it was under attack.

There are many unanswered questions emerging from Boston, but one question, which emerges during every man-made tragedy, is: how could someone do this?

Beneath any self-justifying political or ideological goals, whomever committed this act of terror would have had to dehumanise the potential victims—to exist without empathy.

To empathise is to find commonality and kinship in strangers.  And while there is a necessary but unfortunate erosion of empathy required to function in the modern world (have you ever walked past a homeless person begging for change?), a core of empathy is critical to maintaining a dignified human existence. There are a number of well-documented ways to embed empathy in a child’s early years, but I believe that literature is the ultimate tool in building sustainable empathy.

Reading fiction demands empathy. It requires the reader to literally walk a few hundred pages in the lives of others. Getting and keeping children reading, around the world, trains our young people to identify with others, to familiarise the unfamiliar, and to humanize the stranger.

As a professional storyteller, I’ve been wrestling with how to square this heinous crime with my own creative output. On the same day as this horrific act was committed against innocent people, I had been busy promoting a book about a boy who unwittingly joins a terrorist cell. On one level, my books are a coming of age thriller series; but they are also a serious (and violent) exploration of extremism. 

Fiction invites and demands the reader to see through the eyes of the protagonist; to imagine living in another world, and to calibrate their own moral compass against those of the characters. When my main character challenges his own moral code, by proxy, so does the reader.  e can each recall the moral choices of our favourite fictional characters (for me: Jay Gatsby, Atticus Finch) because we lived in their heads, in their souls—we empathised.

Books are a safe space to test moral choices and to imagine living like someone else; a crucial foundation to sustainable empathy.

I don’t know why the Boston bomber committed this terrible act, but I suspect that once the investigation is complete, we will learn that the perpetrator lacked empathy.  This doesn’t excuse the crime, but it may help explain and understand it.

If we are to save ourselves from dehumanising criminals, we need a world populated by people with empathy.  Getting them reading is one place to start.



Jeff Norton is the author of the MetaWars books (Orchard Books). @thejeffnorton