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  • March 2013
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Empathy Through Books: Reading Fiction in the Wake of Steubenville

It’s hard to read the continuing coverage of the Steubenville sexual assaults without seeing a gross empathy problem plaguing our culture. How else could these sorts of things happen? How could two teens feel that what they did was okay? How could their peers sit idly by as it happened or casually retweet the videos in its wake? Why would adults choose to enable such behavior through attempts to cover-up the attack?

It’s left me thinking hard about my role as a librarian–what I can do ensure that the young people who I am committed to serve can live in a world that allows them to build friendships and relationships with each other and their community at large based on love, trust, and mutual respect.

In turn, I’ve become even more concerned about the many dehumanizing words and messages that powerful people send through the media. These people hope to take away your ability to form the person you want to be, and the beliefs you choose to grow up with. They wish to take away your empathy–your ability to imagine the thoughts, feelings, and struggles of people in the world–and to work toward the sort of world you may wish along with it. And in doing so, they give you an easy out to dismiss these things, to do nothing as people benefit from the suffering of others–or perhaps give you enough of a benefit that you can rationalize such struggles away.

Exploring my role within our culture, I found a number of studies that combine my love of recommending literature with my hope for your future and that of Pittsburgh’s teenagers. These studies give credence to the idea that reading novels and other fictional stories can help us make ourselves more empathetic to the world around us.

This one showed that reading a fiction book increased a reader’s empathetic skills over two weeks. This one showed that readers who showed more engagement in their reading were more likely to help someone pick up some dropped pens. Finally, this one noticed decreased readers’ egos after having them read passages from Twilight and Harry Potter.

Perhaps you’re struggling to understand what happened. Perhaps you suffer no such crisis. No matter who you are, I recommend the following books. Perhaps soon we can share a world full of literature, love, and respect!


Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Main

5 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Eleventh Stack and commented:
    Editor’s note: our colleague at CLPTeensburgh, Joseph, has given us permission to reblog his essay on reading fiction in the wake of Steubenville. We hope you find it as meaningful as we did, and hope that you will add CLPTeensburgh to your list of must-read book/library blogs.

  2. Great book recommendations and reflection! I recently wrote about the relationship between empathy and reading too (having been inspired by a wonderful J.K. Rowling speech!) and I most definitely believe books can shape a young person’s ability to humanize and relate to others. This is especially needed today for youth who only know a world of technology that makes it so easy to distance oneself from another person’s suffering. While technology does offer many positive benefits, it also seems to produce this sense that as if as long as it’s on Youtube, it’s not “real.”

  3. Eloquent and important. Thank you.

  4. Fabulous & thoughtful post. So glad we have people like you to help our younger readers puzzle things out.

  5. I’m glad there are folks in the area whose heads are screwed on straight and see that their is a serious problem that needs to be fixed in our culture. While everyone is lamenting the ruined lives of the attackers, it is good to see folks who are concerned for the life of the victim. Hopefully we can all get to the point where this kind of thing does not happen at all.

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