Reading as a Technology of Compassion

In his book The Better Angels of our Nature, linguist and polymath Steven Pinker discusses the extraordinary power of book reading.

Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point. … the habit of reading people’s words could put one in the habit of entering other people’s minds, including their pleasures and pains. 

Reading is not a useless pastime or idle leisure. A reader’s inner world is vast — a chorus of many voices from many different times and places. When we have the voice of the other inside our minds they are, in a way, no longer an other, but integrated into ourselves and our inner landscape. We are therefore more capable of acting compassionately towards those who are not like us:

Hunt suggests a causal chain: reading epistolary novels about characters unlike oneself exercises the ability to put oneself in other people’s shoes, which turns one against cruel punishments and other abuses of human rights. … Technological advances in publishing, the mass production of books, the expansion of literacy, and the popularity of the novel all preceded the major humanitarian reforms of the 18th century.

This is yet another reason why I will endlessly and obnoxiously champion the discipline of reading. I believe that reading has changed the world and that the skill of reading is the closest thing humanity has to a superpower. I see no greater antidote to ignorance, violence, and extremism than the act of willfully inhabiting the mind of an other. 

Hat tip to Lilith Starr’s book Compassionate Satanism for putting this quote from Pinker on my radar.

What books have most shaped your ability to experience compassion and empathy for others? Let me know in the comments below or on my discord server, and don’t forget to become a patron if you enjoy my work. 

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