Empathy: What a Novel Concept

If Ray Bradbury were alive today he would be able to make a public declaration of, “I told ya so!”

Of course many readers of Bradbury’s work would have said this years ago, but as I read Fahrenheit 451 this past week I felt the need to buy every copy I could get my hands on, and hand them out like candy. Delicious, thought provoking, terrifying candy.

Originally I was planning on one blog post about what analysis I did of 451 this past week, but what I’m realizing is I have several topics I want to address. The first is near and dear to my heart: how books promote empathy, and how we are in some serious need of compassion in our brave new world.

Because Fahrenheit 451 isn’t about censorship or the government trying to keep people in the dark, it’s about the atrocities humans commit against each other through war and other acts of violence when we cannot empathize with those we don’t understand. It is so much easier to drop bombs and deploy troops when the other group is an “Other.” This lack of empathy feeds distrust and anger which in turn stokes the fires of hatred.

The population in Fahrenheit 451 is not unlike our own really. People commit violence easily and without thought, entertainment rules lives, and distraction is everywhere. Add to this the general feeling that everyone is out for themselves. Love doesn’t exist in this world because people cannot create the deep relationships that create a network of friends and family. We’re lucky, we can still connect with our  loved ones in deep and meaningful ways, but it’s also easy to create monsters and targets out of people we do not understand.

The attitude towards books and knowledge also feels familiar. People gave up learning, books, and information willingly. This possibility doesn’t seem that far off with every new season of The Bachelor or new reality T.V show. To be fair though, I really enjoy wedding shows on TLC, I am not above that type of enjoyment; I start feeling concerned when adults consume more reality television than they do books per year. I also see how reading can be seen as elitist or reserved only for the well educated. In Fahrenheit 451 people who sought knowledge were scorned. There are deeper implications in this line of analysis, but for the sake of brevity let us just compare this attitude with the one we see presented in our own society.

Our current president ran on the idea that he was going to take down the elites, the people with degrees from fancy universities, people with lots of money who do not care about the little guy or the flyover states. Those are the people reading books recommended by the NYT.

So now we see a pushback against seeking out sources of information. It’s so much easier to believe what we see on the news or our Facebook walls. But in reality we are doing a disservice to ourselves and the rest of the world. A well read populace isn’t just about acting elite or being intelligent for the sake of intelligence; it’s a lot easier to put yourself in someone else’s shoes when you can connect with their story.

I work at Powell’s City of Books, and after the election we asked customers to submit ideas for books to mail to the White House. One package of ten books was for Obama, the other for the current president whom I refuse to name. In my heart I believe Obama would have gladly read the selected titles. The current president, not so much.

It’s a known fact that reading makes you more empathetic. If you’re reading this blog, then you probably have first hand experience with this. It’s hard to imagine the 45th president actually reading (and not just because Samantha Bee has convinced me he can’t) because he seems incapable of actually empathizing with anyone. Even in his speeches he acts above the people he’s speaking to; he thinks their intelligence level so low he can act entertaining and they’ll follow him no matter what. And I mean anyone. He pretends to, understand, but this is a flimsy facade I wish more people could see through. Also, who picks The Red Badge of Courage as their favorite book? Someone who lies about his reading abilities…(I’m mostly joking because it makes me feel better, but still it makes you wonder).

We are in dire need of an empathetic population, and one that is willing to fight for that empathy. Books aren’t the answer to the problem, but they are part of a solution. It it was as easy as convincing every person to read a book, Harry Potter would have solved this problem a long time ago. But maybe that’s why people my age attune themselves to the problems of others, a populace outraged by violence and injustice.

I’m trying not to glorify books into the cure all for this garbage fire we call society. I believe good things happen every day even if they seem small and insignificant. What concerns me lie in the empathetic abilities of the people in power. The man in charge of our country is willing and waiting with a manic grin on his denner resin veneered teeth to hit the big red button. To launch war against anyone.

Personally, I can’t imagine feeling that comfortable ending the lives of other human beings. But I also spent most of my life reading about people who fought against the war monger, the tyrannical leader, or the evil unleashed upon the world.  Am I afraid of what others could do to the people I love, or me personally? Yes, but that’s because we’ve allowed ego and pride to win over empathy and diplomacy.

Books teach us how to empathize. They also teach us how to fight against hatred. They are not the cure for what ails us, they are not perfect answer to ending war, but they are part of a larger cure that no one is willing to take.


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