Developing Empathy Through Literature

Welcome to From Insults to Respect.

Empathy, as we have been lately discussing (see HERE and HERE), is crucial for being respected by your friends, coworkers, and community. And fostering empathy in our kids is crucial if we desire that they will grow up with integrity and honor.

Several suggestions have been made in my earlier posts on how best to foster this set of skills, including the value of reading literature. But in a recent post in another blog, Engaging Peacethe message of the literature approach was delivered in such a powerful manner, that I decided to devote a whole post on my own blog just on this topic.

The Engaging Peace Post

In the Engaging Peace post, the author, Kathleen Malley-Morrison, writes:

“What feeds the roots of empathy? One answer is: literature, specifically literature demonstrating the ways that pain, fear, love, joy, and a remarkable range of human reactions unite all of humanity, regardless of the divisive little categories like age, sex, religion, and ethnicity that we shove people into.”

To give us a sense of the power of literature to promote empathy, Kathleen tells us about her own experience reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. The novel is based on Remarque’s experiences as a German soldier in World War I.

The quote from the book that particularly touched Kathleen’s heart occurs during a scene in which Remarque’s character, Paul Bäumer, has just witnessed the death of a French soldier whom he has stabbed:

But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?”

Wow! I was originally deeply affected by those lines many years ago. Returning to the depths of those feelings now provided me a vivid sense of the awesome power of literature.

Harvard Psychologist Takes On This Topic

The Better Angels of Our Nature is a brilliant book by Harvard University professor of psychology, Steven Pinker. There, we learn that human violence has not only dramatically declined, empathy for a wide range of people has surged.pinker

One of the conditions that fosters such psychological development, the good professor explains, is the availability of stories that reveal the humanity of people that lie outside of our immediate circle of family and friends. printing-press-invention-6Professor Pinker notes that prior to the invention of the printing press there were very few books available. Those people who lived in the upper classes rarely had much direct contact with the lower classes. A nobleman’s quick glance while passing by a downtrodden worker often merely left the impression of a filthy, smelly soul, hardly human at all. After novels became available, a nobleman might read of a poor young woman pressed into very sad circumstances by a cruel person of the upper classes, and discover tears running down his cheeks. To discover that people all over the world, in all classes, and other religions have very similar desires, dreams, and feelings that we can all relate to, increases empathy and the desire to deal with a wider range of humanity in kind and respectful ways.

Research On This Topic

David C. Kidd and Emanuel Castano recently published an impressive article in the journal Science. It not only summarizes the research supporting the value of empathy, but also describes five studies that they carried out demonstrating the value of reading literature for enhancing empathy.

Of particular importance here is that their studies indicate that reading just any book is not likely to significantly improve empathy skills. Neither nonfiction or popular fiction did the trick. Only what they referred to as “literature” clearly enhanced empathy skills even though there was some indication that most folks liked the popular fiction best.

Why might literature be so effective? In my view, nonfiction books tend to deal with things–rock formations, how to do quilting, etc. If you choose to read one of these books it is because you share a common interest with the author. No time is spent on getting to intimately know people who have opinions and views that are much different than yours.

With popular literature, the author typically presents an exciting plot, with clear views about the good guys and bad guys. Consider as an exemplar, the movie Star Wars, a phenomenally successful form of popular fiction. Within minutes, we come to know who the bad and good guys are. And the bad guys are pretty much completely evil, and the good guys, ever so swell. Moreover, the plot is rather simple–the good guys have to kill as many bad guys as they can, with the ultimate goal of destroying their headquarters known as the Death Star.

In contrast, with literature there is often room left between the words that allow the reader to give some thought to filling in for themselves what may be felt or done. Literature invites us to consider others not like ourselves, and whether those opposed to the main characters are really completely bad. And even the good guys might have more to their characters than mere goodness. Why did that character do this? We get some hints, but we have some creative work to do in order to reach some tentative ideas. All of this extra thought processing leads to a more developed sense of empathy.

Selecting Literature that Promotes the Development of Empathy Skills

If you hand your five-year old son a copy of Henry James’s classic literary work, Wings of a Dove, chances are that before finishing the first half of a page, he will end up crying out that it is way too boring for him. Young children require a different level of challenge when reading literature than teenagers and adults in order to be sufficiently engaging to them. Here are some suggestions for making your selections based on the age of the reader.

For children within the age range of 4 to 8, I recommend the free guide titled “Developing Empathy Though Children’s Literature.” It has been published by the US government, and you can retrieve it on line at: The authors have done yeomen’s work in selecting a variety of excellent books that tend to be available at local libraries.

It is enormously important to read these books with your kids, and to pause now and then to ask them questions about what is occurring. “How do you think Sally is feeling right now?” is one worthwhile question. “Why do you think she is feeling that way?” is another. So too is, “If you were Sally’s friend, is there something you might do to help her?”

Now, for kids a little older than 8, I have found that good selections are harder to come by. The books for this age range tend to be the simple popular fiction type. I, therefore, wrote a trilogy of coming of age novels to fill in this gap.

The first in the trilogy is titled A Hero Grows In Brooklyn, and although you can buy an inexpensive paperback copy of it, I have made it available to be downloaded for free (For your free download, click HERE). Part of the plot involves a boy named Steve who, at age thirteen, has to move in the middle of the school year because his family has been thrown into poverty. On the first day in his new school, he has to use his dreaded free lunch pass that is provided to students who can’t afford to pay for their lunch. Here’s a little section from that work:

Steve gets in his lunch line. The aroma of chicken soup, peanut butter sandwiches, and fried fish cakes drifts into his nostrils.  He picks out a peanut butter sandwich, a container of milk, and some ice cream.  Then he shows the cashier his free lunch pass. 

Ron DeFelipo, standing right behind Steve, starts to laugh and says to Mysterious Jane, “Look at this! This guy can’t afford to buy himself lunch!  What a joke!”

When Steve hears this, it feels like a knife has been stuck in his gut.  His face becomes hot, he pleads with himself not to have tears well up in his eyes, and he looks down avoiding everyone’s eyes.

Mysterious Jane looks at Steve, then turns to Ron, shoves him, and says, “You have no brains.”

When Steve gets back to his table, his appetite is gone. He picks at his food for a while, thinking he’s not going to be eating again until past six. With sourness spreading in the pit of his stomach, he comes to accept that he isn’t going to get any food down right now, and so he pushes his tray away.

Here we begin to get to know a character who is struggling with the embarrassment of being poor. Meanwhile, another character, Ron seeks to humiliate him. Mysterious Jane, in contrast, displays empathy.

In another type of literature, Ron would be treated as a character that is just one awful guy. Not so in A Hero Grows in Brooklyn. Here we come to see that through the help of the talented social skills of Steve, Ron begins to develop into someone that is far more mature than when we are first introduced to him. The other characters, as well, mature as the story unfolds, and the reader grows with them.

The other two novels in the trilogy take the same characters that we met in the first of the series into high school. More and more mature themes are addressed as they approach their date of graduation.

Together, these novels challenge readers to explore social and emotional issues within a context that teenagers find themselves fully engrossed in.

Interestingly, the feedback I received about these novels indicate that adults enjoy them as much as teenagers. You can learn more about these novels HERE.

For adults, in addition to my own trilogy, I recommend making selections from the list of fiction finalists of the National Book Awards, which, each year, is readily retrievable from a Google search. For those who prefer short stories, O’Henry Award winners are great. Some of these stories were used in the research study published in the journal Science that was mentioned earlier in this post and found to increase empathy. You can find collections of these short stories by doing an internet search using the key words, “short stories, O’Henry Award Winners.

Well, that’s all the time we have for today. Here’s hoping you join us again real soon at From Insults to Respect. Until then, may your life be full of delightful wonder.


Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.


Empathetic: To Be, Or Not To Be?

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

1 Comment

  1. Jeffrey,

    always looking for empathetic books to read and share with people I respect.

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