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)
Vacationland, John Hodgman
The Odyssey, Homer, transl. Emily Wilson
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.
Photo by Zach Dischner, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by Megan Willome, author of The Joy of Poetry.
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
- Perspective: The Two, The Only: Calvin and Hobbes - December 16, 2022
- Children’s Book Club: A Very Haunted Christmas - December 9, 2022
- By Heart: ‘The night is darkening round me’ by Emily Brontë - December 2, 2022
For more than a year, I’ve had a schedule of books to read that I’ve stuck fairly close to. In October, I threw the schedule out the window. I’m not sure why, but it felt liberating.
Dead Lock by Damien Boyd
The Day of the Lie by William Brodrick
A Staged Murder by Jo Hiestand
Blue Murder by Emma James
Cold Earth by Ann Cleeves
Written in Blood by Stephen Puleston
The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor
Appalachian Serenade by Sarah Louden Thomas
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
The Second Half by Lauraine Snelling
Once We Were Strangers by Shawn Smucker
Charles Dickens: An Introduction by Jenny Hartley
Habits of Grace by David Mathis
Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden
Ghosts of War: A History of World War I in Poetry and Prose by Andrew Ferguson
Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead
Midland: And Other Poems by Paul Kingsnorth
Songs from the Blue River by Paul Kingsnorth
The Long Take by Robin Robertson
Megan Willome says
Always happy to hear about a little reading liberation, Glynn!
Just curious, knowing that mystery is such a fixture in each month’s recap, is that genre the most fun for you?
I’ve been reading mysteries since I was 7. It’s a genre I’ve always enjoyed.
I finished Mark Nepo’s ‘More Together Than Alone’ and have started ‘Hue 1968’. Am also reading 3 collections of poet Tony Hoagland, including his last, ‘Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God’.
Now that the renovation and move and resettlement have come to an end, I hope to give more of my time to my books and writing.
Megan Willome says
Maureen,I think a lot of people are spending time with Tony Hoagland’s work right now.
Bethany R. says
I enjoyed reading this post and the comments here.
Characters in well-written books can do a number on us, can’t they? So important to see how that deep reading can extend our empathy–or at least our perspective.
I think it ties into that most recent Difficult Conversations post and the mention of “complexifying” an identity—it may not always be just black or white.
I’ve been slowly reading in a handful of books for some time, and am still working on them:
– Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen (reading this with my mom in our book club)
– A Guide to Being Born, by Ramona Ausubel
– Kindest Regards, by Ted Kooser
– Consolations, by David Whyte (a gift from a caring friend)
– Pontoon: A Novel of Lake Wobegon, by Garrison Keillor
– To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf (Audible Studios, read by Nicole Kidman)
I notice Garrison Keillor does a pretty good job of showing multiple sides of characters—flaws, charms, and neutral ground included.
Megan Willome says
Bethany, I always noticed that talent of Keillor’s on “A Prairie Home Companion.” I’ve only read the poetry collections he’s edited.
I would have so much fun in a “Northanger Abbey” book club. (I love all things Jane!) And “To The Lighthouse” is one of those books I didn’t much care for in college, then went back and read it after I’d been married a few years and my jaw dropped at how insightful it was.
L.L. Barkat says
Bethany, I just looked up A Guide to Being Born. How are you liking it, and where did you discover it? Unusual sounding (and intriguing. 🙂 )
Megan, I love that the part of the brain that processes stories also helps us navigate relationships. (Scroll down in this article to see that part: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html )
It does raise the question of whether violent literature (or gaming) without empathic directions also then guides how we navigate relationships. Maybe the process of reflection is important as well, which would mean that upper teen readers and adults could better handle certain kinds of literature that lacks empathic direction than, say, children. So, yes, maybe we do need to engage in curation for kids at some level?
I finished Reader, Come Home, which I loved.
Started The Organized Mind, which I also like a lot, but it’s long, so I am probably going to have to return it to the library and start again sometime.
Slowly making my way through Braiding Sweetgrass.
A friend asked me to read Eager, about, yes, beavers! It’s not an action-packed read, but it’s interesting. Did you know beavers can hold their breath for 15 minutes? 🙂
Sara is begging me to read The Picture of Dorian Gray, so she can discuss it with me. Need to open the first page. Maybe today. 🙂
Megan Willome says
“The Picture of Dorian Gray” is fabulous! Tell Sara she has good taste. So much to explore.
Thanks for the article. NPR’s “Science Friday” discussed it at the time, I believe. I like this quote: “The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.”
Which I think may be a good guide to dealing with violence. Violence–whether real or in a book — always stems from a person, with experiences and motivations and thoughts and feelings. Fiction (like ASOIAF) allows you to get into the mind of the person doing and being done to. Sometimes reality does not offer us those opportunities.
L.L., I’m only a few pages into A Guide to Being Born, so I don’t know if I like it yet. I found it because I read all but the last chapter of another book by the same author and particularly loved the first chapter of it. Her storytelling is captivating.
Cool to hear that you loved Reader, Come Home. What is it about that book that you most enjoy? 🙂