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 Mirror, revealing 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. Continue reading “Gifts of Empathy, Outrage, and Perspective”