5 Books that Help Us Empathize

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It’s no secret that reading expands the mind, but if you’re a book lover, there’s even more good news: Reading expands the heart too. In 2013, a study at The New School New York proved that reading literary fiction can positively impact emotional intelligence and empathy. Reading puts us in someone else’s shoes, so try these five great reads for more than just entertainment.

1. “Brooklyn,” Colm Toibin

Moving abroad is hard, but perhaps not as hard as it was for Colm Toibin’s heroine Eilis Lacey: She spent a week throwing up on a boat just to get to New York in Toibin’s 1950s tale of Irish emigration. While today’s moves might require shorter trips, that doesn’t mean assimilating to a new place is easy.

Even if you haven’t moved recently, thanks to Toibin’s sympathetic portrait of a young woman trying to make a new life abroad, you’ll be better able to appreciate anyone who seems shy in a new place and perhaps more likely to reach out to welcome them. Is your roommate new to the city? Does she stay in, Skyping home every night? Ask her to join you and your friends.

2. “Matilda,” Roald Dahl

Sometimes the people who believe in us most are not the one’s we’d expect to. Look at Matilda. Her disinterested parents couldn’t see her brilliance, but a kind teacher, Miss Honey, could. If you see someone not getting the support they need from family, consider that you could be a real life Miss Honey, and help them believe in themselves for who they really are.

3. “The Fault in Our Stars,” John Green

After reading Gus and Hazel’s love story, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel grateful for your health, the people you love and the people you have loved, even if you’re no longer together. John Green’s tale of first love is beautiful and tragic.

The young couple, who have both suffered major health issues, are such vibrant characters that readers will at times forget that they are “different”; you’ll find yourself recognizing the angst of young love. Green’s writing reminds us that everyone is, at their core, the same; we want to love and be loved.

4. “The Girl on the Train,” Paula Hawkins

Tired of commuting smushed into some guy’s armpit all while listening to a seemingly crazy person rant and rave? Fair. No one wants to feel unsafe or uncomfortable, but instead of judging, consider what might have happened to the screaming man or woman to make them act that way.

In Paula Hawkins’ thrilling bestseller (soon to be a major motion picture starring Emily Blunt) Rachel’s marriage has broken down, and she has lost her job, her home, her credibility and her chance of having a child. She has been beaten and lost chunks of her memory.

So next time someone starts hooting and hollering, be grateful that you’re getting off at the next stop to go to your place of work and that you have a home to go back to afterwards. So many people don’t have the things we take for granted.

5. “Prep,” Curtis Sittenfeld

This book captures the agonies of being an outsider. Teenager Lee feels like a fish out of water at an exclusive New England Prep school. She struggles to make friends and to fit in. We all know what it’s like to be out of our comfort zone.

Is there a newbie at work who has yet another question for you every time you look up from your keyboard? Consider how having a friendly face to patiently explain things could make all the difference to them, and that one day you’re going to switch jobs and be in the same boat!

Catherine Higgins-Moore

Catherine Higgins-Moore holds an English Literature and Drama degree from Trinity College Dublin, a Journalism diploma and a Masters from the University of Oxford. She is founding editor of The Irish Literary Review, a contributor to The Times Literary Supplement and has worked in the newsrooms of BBC Belfast and BBC Oxford. Originally from Northern Ireland, Catherine now lives in New York.