Gifts of Empathy, Outrage, and Perspective

When people talk about the value they derive from reading, they will often mention how it widens their perspective, allowing them to partake of the lives, thoughts and experiences of others. As Joyce Carol Oates puts it, “Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin.” Some studies have supported the popular view that readers are more empathetic, while others question whether reading makes us kinder, or if kind people just like to read. In any case, readers value literature’s ability to see the world through others’ eyes.

Just as reading allows us to expand into different people and places, it also allows us direct access to the past, which can do wonders for our sense of perspective. Looking back across the centuries, we may come to perceive what Barbara Tuchman called in the title of her best known work, a Distant Mirrorrevealing certain patterns and abiding truths, and reassuring us with examples of how others have faced similar challenges and overcome.

Lately I’ve been reading books and articles from a period of time a little over a century ago that came to be known as the Gilded Age, a period of extreme splendor and excess for some, and great disillusionment and outrage for many. Out of the ranks of the latter a new generation of muckraking writers unleashed powerful indictments of this corruption, shining a light on the injustices and inequities of their day.

You can feel the heat of righteous anger rise off every page of Jacob Riis’s searing photographic expose How the Other Half Lives, or Upton Sinclair’s epochal The Jungle, as well as his lesser known but hauntingly timely exploration of yellow journalism (think “fake news”), The Brass Check: A Study of American Journalism.  Pioneering investigative journalists such as Nellie Bly, Ida Tarbell, and Ida Wells faced off against corporate greed, hate crime, and institutional racism and sexism with uncompromising zeal. Emile Zola, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser and other respected novelists of the day brought social justice to the fore in bestselling titles such as Germinal, Sister Carrie, The Octopus and The Pit. Jack London re-framed the struggle in a new way with his totalitarian dystopia The Iron Heel, laying out the basic outlines of a genre that often crowds the bestseller lists today.

Reading these works, one is struck by how familiar and persistent are the problems they sought to cure, and touched by the earnest conviction of many of these authors that a better day was surely at hand, or just around the corner. In some instances they were right, but many of their goals are still unmet. These voices from the past remind us just how slowly change can come, and of the persistent pressure that brings about that slow change, in spite of setbacks, defeats and despair.

Among the stunningly corrupt robber barons of that Gilded Age, the richest of them all felt that there had to be a better way, and that great wealth was pointless unless put to use for the public good. His answer? He built libraries – lots and lots of libraries.

     – Posted by David W. 

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