Books are about empathy, not division

The whole point of reading is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

atticus finch quote.png

It’s about relating to people that *are not* like you. I thought for a bit about books with characters like me in them and they weren’t people that matched me in identity, but in thoughts, feelings and actions. When I read I can be anyone else.  So why would I just want to be me?

And since it’s almost guaranteed that someone will go “ah that’s cos you’re privileged and represented in books so many times” and it always comes back to technicalities of “what you are” instead of who you are, I will be blunt: the vast majority of the time I’ve read about people with my ethnicity and gender they’re being murdered… so lucky me, I guess?

But really the point here is not to say “I need books where people like me are not being murdered”; nor is it to say that there is some secret class of people that somehow manage to abscond with all the “privilege” in the world. If you know me at all, you’ll know that’s not what I’m about. In fact I am saying quite the opposite- the truth is we can all relate to books where on-the-surface there is nothing relatable in them. Art is the great leveller in a free society.

Let’s be honest, none of us have much in common identity-wise with Dobby the House elf, but many of us still cried when he died (come to think of it I don’t have much in common with Hedwig either and that did me in too…). Books do not have to be about what we are at all to have a profound emotional effect.

So read beyond what makes you comfortable, never segregate your reading habits and explore horizons you never thought you could.

Just a thought… Let me know what you think in the comments! 

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67 thoughts on “Books are about empathy, not division

  1. Nel says:

    I tend to read stories where the main is adventurous or an assassin. I’m not a completely cautious butterfly but I feel like reading these characters who are will maybe make me a little less cautious all the time. I also like subjecting myself to emotional torture so the more a book tugs at my feelings the better, haha!

    Liked by 2 people

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Ahh that’s a fantastic way to look at it- I think books are designed for us to map ourselves onto the characters and learn from them- so yes, reading books about adventurous assassins is a great way to become less cautious 😀 haha I’m the same!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    I completely agree with you! I love reading about people who are unlike me and characters having completely different experiences than I ever have. I like seeing what I can learn from the experience.

    That said, I often find myself relating to characters who exhibit traits I would like to see in myself more than those who are so wildly different. But it’s always a learning experience.

    Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Marie says:

    I LOVE this post so, so much and I 100% agree with you on this. I obviously have a good time when I can read and relate to a character, find myself or some parts of myself in him or her, but I love to find and explore characters that are so different than me, lives that are different just as well. It’s so good to be able to explore this and learn from it just as well, that’s what reading is for ❤

    Liked by 2 people

  4. the Well-Red Mage says:

    I really like your point here and I’ve been trying to articulate it myself. I haven’t been able to do succinctly. I think that an obsession with representation can derail stories when they take precedence over the joy of telling stories for the sake of the stories themselves. At that point, the stories become hyper-politicized, pandering or subservient to an agenda. There are many great books with characters nothing like me, but I can identify with them on the virtue of the story being well-told not because they merely share my ethnicity or skin color. Thanks for the read!

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thank you!! I absolutely agree with you. Precisely- and on that note I’ve read a fair number of books that have veered from storytelling to outright propaganda pieces lately- it’s quite irritating and it’s not like it works at selling their ideas. Yes precisely- I just think it’s very counterproductive in getting bogged down in the fact that a character is not like the reader- surely this is the opposite of what books are trying to achieve! Thank you very much for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Christy Luis says:

    So very true! I read to understand an author’s point of view, and I write reviews as a response to their point of view. (And we read and comment on each other’s blogs for the same reason.) It’s a conversation. We all read and write so we can can better understand each other and the world. And reading outside of our comfort zones helps us become more empathetic people! Great post! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Zezee says:

    “Books do not have to be about what we are at all to have a profound emotional effect.” I totally agree. But sometimes it is nice to have a character who resembles you, or shares your background, represented in a positive light in books. Still I don’t think peeps should avoid reading books that don’t do this (or pressure/bully authors into doing so).
    I believe we should all read widely and read to experience new things (situations, people, etc.) because it does help us to better empathize with others in our life. But to see yourself reflected in the media you consume helps to make you feel like you matter too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Absolutely- like most things, it’s about balance. There’s nothing wrong with liking representations that are similar to you in literature, but it’s also really not productive to avoid (or worse bully the author about) books that don’t do this.
      Yes definitely agree there. To be honest, I don’t personally feel that way, as I mentioned in the post, but I suppose that’s really up to individuals how they feel about it. Everyone has different experiences and expectations.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Briana says:

    I get frustrated every time someone tries to put reading or literature in a box, so I really agree with a lot about this. Different readers need different things at different times. Sometimes it’s great to read about someone like you. (Though I think this post nicely raises the point that people seem to have varying opinions of what “like you means. Is it that the character looks like me? Or that we have similar struggles? Or similar believes? Or something else?) But reading about people who are not like you at all can also be good and eye-opening.

    Liked by 3 people

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Oh I one hundred percent agree with you there!! That is the perfect way to put it!! Yes- definitely agree with you there- personally I think it’s nice to have a balance. And I’m glad you picked up on that- it’s an interesting discussion to have for sure. Thank you for commenting!!

      Like

  8. thesarahdoughty says:

    It’s sad that one demographic is traditionally being murdered in books. Why? It makes no sense. But I agree. I like to escape. In my case, I really like to be in the shoes of someone with a similar past to mine, so I can see how they respond to the world. How they heal.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Anna says:

    Great post! I think it’s really important to read from a wide range of genres and expose yourself to characters that are different from you as well as characters that are like you.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

    So well said! That is the true beauty of reading though isn’t it. The ability to go beyond or even a little further than we might normally have. We are given the opportunity to explore the unexplored even when it is frightening or out of our comfort zone, but with that comes growth.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Krysta says:

    I think it’s interesting to see how many people here seem to think that a character “like them” often means a character who has similar struggles or a similar personality, rather than a character who looks like them. Also that readers here, unsurprisingly, like a wide variety of books. I think I’d be bored if every character I read was like me. Sometimes I like reading about characters BECAUSE they are nothing like me, but I get to admire qualities they have or to see things from a perspective they have.

    Liked by 2 people

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Yes I do think that’s interesting- but also, to my mind, a good thing 🙂 Yes for sure- definitely agree with you there!! It’s obviously fun to read about characters that are similar to me, cos it’s easy to identify with them, but it’s really enlightening to read about people who are vastly different too 😀 Thanks for commenting!!

      Like

  12. Silvia says:

    Yep, well stated, I relate. I usually read about very different than me characters, but I tend to become one with the main character, or a secondary one, or even the author.

    Like

  13. Donna | Chocolate'n'Waffles says:

    As usual, I think you are right, my deer… No sorry, Orang-Utan :p Sorry I’ve been wanting to do this one forever xD
    What I look most in books are emotions, and empathy. Yes, I like to recognize a piece of me, or something that reminds me of me in a character sometimes (often in the ones I never expected haha) but I don’t read to focus on my own little world with my own little problems and thoughts. I read to go beyond that, to taste different things, to feel for unique protagonists, stories, situations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      hehehe oh deer, that was a good one 😉 xD
      Absolutely!! I agree- I also like to find snippets of myself in books- but it’s not the only thing I look for- not by a long shot! Like you said, I like to go beyond that- I love how you put it!! 😀

      Like

  14. Chris C Barnett says:

    Your last line is absolutely perfect. “Read beyond what is comfortable”. Sometimes it’s nice to read something warm and familiar but the truly wonderful thing about books is how many of them there are. So much variety, so many perspectives to explore.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. LizScanlon says:

    You nailed it with this post… again! 🙂
    This–> “Art is the great leveller in a free society.” is a great thought! And I think there is nothing better, more exciting and mind opening that stepping out of ones comfort zone to discover those new horizons!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Kristina Steiner says:

    I love it when I enjoy reading something that I wouldn’t think I actually would. Books have magic. The words put us under a spell and sometimes you can’t explain it but you relate and make a connection. They just move you.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. tasya @ the literary huntress says:

    I agree, even when there are a lot of diverse books available, I tend to gravitate towards books/diverse books that don’t have my culture or resonates with me. While it feels nice to be represented in a book and relateable-ity of the story and characters are important for me to enjoy a book, I want to know about things outside my comfort zone; what it feels like, how does things work, and so on. Amazing post!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Nicola @ Thoughts on Fantasy says:

    Very true – one of the best things about books is getting to experience things from inside a new and different perspective. I think they even have that advantage over movies… in movies you still feel like you are look AT someone else, in books you feel more like you’re actually in their shoes. Also I feel like the more I read, the more I am looking for something different or original to give me an experience I haven’t had before – and part of that is presenting me with a character that’s very different to me or to other characters I’ve encountered before.
    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. AFirthOfForth says:

    When you say people don’t have much in common with the house elf. I think they do. He’s very significant he has to spend his life slaving for the priviliged until he gets his sock and is alowed to be free. So to be honest he’s very significant. Could probably be a representative of a whole class to be honest considering what the minumum wage is people are practically slaves.

    Like

  20. Yani says:

    “Art is the great leveller in a free society.” I agree. Also, I do not read synopsis bc they make me judge the book instantly and not give it a chance to be read. I want to know the characters even though they disgust me at some point but maybe I’d cry for them later.

    Liked by 1 person

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