Over the past week, news from around the world has been terrifying and heartbreaking. In times of great danger and violence, when fellow humans across the globe are running for their lives and seeking refuge for their families, we feel helpless and often turn to our favorite things – books! – for comfort and distraction. On Saturday afternoon I saw a lot of smart bookish friends on Twitter admitting to feeling very guilty for spending the afternoon cozy at home reading, with tea, chocolate, blankets, pets, loved ones. I felt that way myself.
But books are just as important in troubled times as in light ones, because reading builds empathy. A 2013 study suggested that reading actually affects the neurological connectivity in the brain – and I believe the compassion we earn from books is even simpler than that. Reading takes you to worlds outside your own, brings you inside the joys and fears and decision-making of characters totally unlike you facing obstacles you may never experience. Reading reminds you there are the human lives making up the faceless statistics from a country you may never see as well as marginalized communities in your hometown, right outside your front door. Reading gives you brave heroines to imitate and callow villains to avoid following. As Madeleine L’Engle said beautifully in her Newbery award speech, “A book, too, can be a star, ‘explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,’ a living ﬁre to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.”
When you see horrible things on the news – or when you see friends and loved ones responding in ways that you strongly disagree with – respond with love and compassion. And then it’s okay to pick up a book and escape from things for a little bit – you’re refilling your empathy tank.
What are your favorite comfort reads? Any recommendations for a book that opened a new world up for you and made you a better person?