The breakdown of empathy leads to many aggravating symptoms that we witness on a daily basis — the inability to engage in debates (because one side can’t see where the other side is coming from), the inability to be civil (because you cannot empathise if you cannot relate to the other person), hyper-aggressive competition and lack of cooperation in human activity (because, after all, why should anyone else be entitled to the resources you are struggling for?), violence (because the perpetrator cannot imagine, or doesn’t care about the consequences of his/her actions), etc.
In a way, I think this breakdown of empathy is the result of more and more people not reading. I’m not talking about reading a tweet or a social media post. I’m talking about deep reading. About immersing oneself in another space, time and culture by reading books deeply; not scanning a tome so that you can post on social media that you are reading one book a week. By reading deeply one engages, and empathises with the author’s humanity. Reading deeply is more than escapism.
Life and society are complex. Real problems are complex. In most cases, there are no absolute rights or wrongs, no right or wrong answer. In many cases solutions turn out to merely whack the mole directly in front of you. Ten more pop up in the periphery of your vision.
So, without wide, critical and deep reading, be it of fiction or non-fiction books, we have a generation that is losing its ability to walk in someone else’s shoes, simply because unless we are shown, we cannot imagine how different other people are or how complex issues can be. Social media, tiktoks, short youtube videos, five minute news sound-bites, spun one-liner strap-lines do not provide the same kind of information that deep reading does. In fact, the danger is that even highly educated people might be deluded into thinking that what they have imbibed for that constant dose of dopamine hit, has given them enough information to come to conclusions on a particular issue. Who needs details? Aren’t the biggest institutions built on bullet points?
Everyone is prone to this, and I am guilty of it myself. To understand issues deeply requires effort. The sort of effort that it takes to read widely, critically and deeply.
So to get society back on the rails, we need to encourage deep and critical reading. And the irony is that we are in the midst of a book publishing renaissance, in all genres. Cheap professional-level tools and the commoditisation of the publishing process has resulted in more subject experts, or people with that itch to write, making the effort.
Let’s start the process by gifting books thoughtfully. Even if the recipient puts the gift on a shelf immediately, that already reduces the inertia of reading if one rainy day they decide to get back into, or start, the habit.