When I cross the state line into Colorado, I feel like I’ve come home. On our October trip north we visited the national park in the photo above, Great Sand Dunes, outside Alamosa. It was unlike anything else we’d seen in the Centennial State, almost a fantasy landscape, like something out of It George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire.
These tales are grim (or GRRM, get it?), whether in book form or as a series on HBO. That’s why I needed the recapping and analysis genius of Leigh Butler’s A Read of Ice and Fire at Tor.com. From the moment the charcter Jaime Lannister appeared, Leigh hated him, as did I. Early in book 1 Jamie attempts to kill a child. No, sirree, I thought, I will never have mercy for that character. The fact that Jamie is smug and funny didn’t do anything to fill my empathy tank for him. But the comments mounted up with each recap — “Just you wait, Henry Higgins.” Give Jaime time.
Chapter 3 of Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home is titled “Empathy: ‘Passing Over’ into the perspective of others.” Wolf got the idea of empathy as “passing over” from narrative theologian John S. Dunne. She describes the process of building narrative empathy as entering into “the feelings, imaginings, and thoughts of others.” She calls it “one of the most profound, insufficiently heralded contributions of the deep-reading process.”
I’m a fairly empathetic gal, and I read a lot of fiction, but I’ve never had such an empathy workout as reading the ASOIAF series. The characters who made me work the most were Jamie and Catelyn Stark, mother of the boy he attempted to kill.
When I started the series, my sympathies were wholly with Catelyn. I loved every chapter from her point of view, even when she didn’t always make good choices. Hating her husband’s illegitimate son who is 100 percent pure awesomeness: mean. Kidnapping Jamie’s brother: unwise. Becoming increasingly bitter as she copes with grief: worrisome.
Near the end of book 2, Catelyn and Jamie have, shall we say, a difficult conversation. From that moment on, the two characters move in opposite directions — Jamie, toward nobility; and Catelyn, toward cruelty. It’s as if they are traveling the same road but reach different ends. My empathy compass spun in circles, especially when the books started including chapters from Jamie’s point of view.
Leigh Butler’s compass was spinning too. When she reached chapter 72 of A Storm of Swords, one from Jamie’s point of view, empathy struck her all at once, like lightning.
“I AM SO ANNOYED RIGHT NOW.
SO MUCH ANNOYANCE. Yes, Jaime annoys me, Martin annoys me and ALL OF YOU PEOPLE OUT THERE IN THE COMMENTS frickin’ annoy me because you were right.
I like Jamie Lannister.
As in, he is now on my List of (Surviving) Characters In ASOIAF I Want to Win. … [list follows]
And I am SO MAD about that that I want to throw things.
No, you don’t even understand, I have been sitting here sulking about it for like the last half hour. Sulking! About a fictional character! That’s how sad I am. THIS IS WHAT I HAVE BEEN REDUCED TO. O, THE HUMANITY, O, THE EXCESSIVE USE OF ALL CAPS. AAAGGHHH.
Me too, Leigh. I can’t stop thinking about these two characters and how my feelings about them changed. In book 1, as Jaime does his dastardly deed, he scoffs, “The things I do for love.” But Catelyn does what she does for love too, and some of it is just as horrific. That’s not me excusing bad behavior. That’s empathy.
Wolf says empathy develops through deep reading, through what she calls “compassionate knowledge of others.” Then that compassionate knowledge changes how we act in society. “It may be our best bridge to others with whom we need to work together, so as to create a safer world for all its inhabitants,” she writes.
These days I need empathy more than ever: when I hear disturbing news, when a friend’s Facebook post upsets me, when a loved one acts not-so-lovingly. I never expected my best bridge to be a violent fantasy series, anymore than I expected to find sand dunes beneath 14,000-foot mountains.
Toasting Marshmallows: Camping Poems, Kristine O’Connell George, illus. Kate Kiesler (next Children’s Book Club meets November 9!)
Emma, Jane Austen (the new Audible version features narration by Emma Thompson)
The Sea Within: Waves and the Meaning of All Things, Peter Kreeft
Early Readers and Picture Books
Pablo Remembers: The Fiesta of the Day of the Dead, George Ancona
Poetry for Young People: Robert Frost, edit. Gary D. Schmidt, illus. Henri Sorensen
Littlebat’s Halloween Story, Diane Mayr, illus. Gideon Kendall (pretty great blend of an animal book and a holiday book)
1. What books have encouraged your empathy, especially for unlikeable characters?
2. Did you make some time for deep reading this month? What stories stirred your soul?
3. Share your October pages. Sliced, started, and abandoned are all fair game.
Browse more Reader Come Home
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro