Empathy in reading

Published by Erica on

Khaled Hosseini’s book A Thousand Splendid Suns recently popped on in a friend’s post of Kindle sales, and seeing that title immediately transported back to the summer in college when I first read this stunning novel.

It was summer 2007, and I was home from college for a few weeks to visit family. That summer dealt me some disappointing (heartbreaking!) news and left me wondering what I would do next. My carefully laid dreams and plans, along with years of effort towards those goals, were shattered, and I had a lot of feelings. Cue picking up a new book to escape my reality! It’s always been a way for me to find balance and relief when stress runs high.

Already knowing the author and his evocative writing, I picked up A Thousand Splendid Suns. This book, much like Hosseini’s first novel, The Kite Runner, focuses a lens on regular life in Afghanistan. Interest in Afghanistan and the Middle East was high following 9/11 and the subsequent war on terrorism. Through his books, Hosseini managed to open a portal into Afghanistan that depicted a reality of life there unknown to most Americans. A Thousand Splendid Suns especially captured me due to its focus on the women of Afghanistan.

Looking back, I definitely don’t think I was ready for the literary world I was about to enter, but I’m forever grateful I went there anyways. This novel tells the multi-generational story of Mariam and Laila, two women brought together by opposite sides of infidelity, polygamy, and the sheer powerlessness of women in Afghanistan society at the time. (And with the Taliban now returned to power, I can only imagine today is much like the time described in the book.)

It was jarring to see how little choice these women had in their lives, and how they were often punished for the few choices they did make. Uniting their stories is the thread of love – seeking love, sharing love, sacrificing for love. I wept, read feverishly through the tense moments to see if these women would survive and succeed, and finished the book with something essential for my understanding of Afghanistan: empathy.

I think empathy is one of the greatest superpowers bestowed by reading. By immersing the reader in a different world through text, the author conjures up images and situations that instruct our minds and soften our hearts. I’ve often experienced the feeling of being so deeply invested in a character that I simply have to cry when they do. Their rollercoaster of emotions becomes my emotional rollercoaster as I follow their journey through the book. Khaled Hosseini is a master of writing, not only for the compelling story he tells, but for how acutely he taps into the readers’ emotions. He escorts us to a truly foreign land, guides us through its culture, and teaches us why we should care about the lives of people living there, the lives of those who aren’t necessarily our enemies, just those who are simply trying to survive and find a hopeful future.

Any book that can create that type of empathy simply through reading is a must-read, in my opinion. Our society has plenty of ways in which we categorize, separate, and “other” people who don’t fit our norms or expectations. Practicing empathy through reading is one of the simplest ways to strengthen a mental muscle that can unite us and bring greater peace and harmony into our individual and collective lives.

If you haven’t read A Thousand Splendid Suns yet, start now! It’s a heavy book and doesn’t mince words when it comes to harsh realities. You will probably cry in anguish and be shocked a few times by the lives of Mariam and Laila. However, you will also hopefully come away with greater empathy and understanding for a people often misunderstood. Increasing our empathy is worth treading the rocky road.

Have you read any books that opened your eyes to a different culture or experience than what you’re used to?

Categories: Books I Love


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