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CHECK THIS OUT: Books, empathy and freedom to read

Freedom to Read Week runs Feb. 19-25
The Nelson Library’s adult services co-ordinator Heather Goldik with some books that have been challenged in Canada. Photo: Submitted

by Heather Goldik

My Gran used to say, “Sometimes when you’re feeling down, the best thing you can do is something for someone else.” Turns out science agrees with her. Kindness has all kinds of benefits to both the giver and the recipient of the kindness.

In a recent Library Podcast Club discussion, we learned about the many benefits of kindness along with a pretty sobering thing: empathy is on the decline. But there’s reason for hope, because empathy is a skill we can build over time. In The Happiness Lab Podcast: The War on Kindness, the host references a study that shows we’re more reluctant to give a stranger an electric shock than ourselves. Generally speaking, humans don’t like to do bad things or cause harm to others.

Except that we do cause harm to others and we do bad things. One of the reasons for this is the inter-group empathy gap. While we’re more likely to have compassion for an individual in front of us, we often feel indifference to the pain of other groups who we perceive as being unlike us or distant from us. It’s the difference between you and me, and us vs. them.

Libraries may provide the antidote. Not only do we champion literacy and access to information, but we’re the perfect place to build empathy. We’re filled with materials representing many different viewpoints, identities and experiences. In fact, there was a study a few years ago that showed that reading fiction can build empathy. Reading fiction exposes us to experiences that are different from our own. They help us step outside of ourselves and gain a deeper understanding of other people and groups.

This is more important now than ever. Over the last couple of years there’s been an increase in book challenges in school and public libraries in the United States. A report by PEN America shows the books most often challenged are on LGBTQ+ themes, and issues of race and racism.

What does it mean when groups try to limit access to reading materials in their school and public libraries? I think it means isolation and a growing inter-group empathy gap. If you can’t find materials that reflect your own experience that can make you feel very alone. And on the flipside, if we don’t have the opportunity to read about other people’s experiences and viewpoints, even those we disagree with, it only widens that inter-group empathy gap.

Book challenges in Canada happen too for all kinds of books from all kinds of perspectives. And that’s why every February we celebrate Freedom to Read Week. It’s an annual campaign championed by libraries, and other bookish types like booksellers, publishers and writers who want you to think about why intellectual freedom is important here at home and around the world.

Freedom to Read means that the library provides materials on many different topics that represent many points of view. It also means you get to make decisions about what you and your family read. But if you do want to learn more about someone else’s point of view or try to understand where someone else is coming from, we’ve got that too.

Lawrence Hill ends his book Dear Sir, I intend to Burn Your Book: An Anatomy of a Book Burning with these powerful words: “The very purpose of literature is to enlighten, disturb, awaken and provoke. Literature should get us talking — even when we disagree. Literature should bring us into the same room — not over matches, but over coffee and conversation. It should inspire recognition of our mutual humanity. Together.”

Heather Goldik is the Nelson Public Library’s adult services co-ordinator. To find out more about Freedom to Read Week visit Check This Out runs monthly.