Editor’s Note: It’s easy to feel overwhelmed or apathetic when faced with the sheer volume of need in our world. Writing a check or volunteering with a local organization are important steps to walking in justice, but they’re not the only steps. Today we’re launching a new blog series called Alternate Routes. This series explores imaginative ways of cultivating empathy and restoring the cracked pieces of the world—in other words, alternate routes to living justly. We’d love to hear your ideas, too. Suggest topics for this series in a comment below! Up first: reading literature.
Few things can bring as much comfort as seeing your own struggle reflected back to you from the pages of a book. At the same time, few things can galvanize, discomfort, and propel you into action like a story. As James Baldwin understood, literature connects its reader to “all the people…who had ever been alive.” Once you’re connected to others, especially others very unlike you, your imagination naturally expands to hold their realities.
Reading a novel might not seem like an obvious avenue toward reforming, but stick with me. Part of art’s power is that it allows you—the viewer, the listener, or the reader—to temporarily inhabit a new perspective. Literature pulls you into the lives of characters unlike yourself and invites you to walk through a narrative with their eyes, ears, and minds. I can’t think of many acts other than reading that drag you so forcefully and generously into the life of another.
One of my favorite novels is Peace Like a River. The protagonist is named Reuben Land, and Reuben can’t breathe. “When I was born to Helen and Jeremiah Land, in 1951,” he says, “my lungs refused to kick in.” He is the asthmatic son of a miracle-working janitor who takes his family on a manhunt for Davy, Reuben’s outlaw older brother. What follows is a Western tale re-imagined, set in the dramatic badlands of North Dakota and pierced with miracles, tragedy, and rescue.
I’m not a seven-year-old boy, I don’t have asthma, and I certainly don’t live in North Dakota during the fifties. But every time I pick up Peace Like a River I step inside the life of someone very unlike myself, in a world very unlike my own. I feel the constriction in my own lungs when Reuben bends over a steaming pot of water to break up his clogged lungs. I feel his shock and awe as he watches his father pace fifteen yards on nothing but thin air, eyes screwed shut in prayer.
Peace Like a River, like any good book, is a window to a world outside my own. When I read it I’m invited to experience the weight of bearing witness to both miracles and tragedy. I understand a sliver more of the grief that follows a family breaking up. I learn what it might feel like to be an outsider on the run, estranged from my community and culture.
Literature cultivates our imagination. It equips us to more easily and generously inhabit the experience of others. Reading, like listening to live music or admiring a Cézanne painting, provides a direct path to empathy because it offers a new framework to see through. Admittedly, telling people to go soak themselves in art is not necessarily a practical way to change the world. But reading will change you, and that’s usually the best place to start. Art—literature included—brings a bit more wholeness to the world by increasing our capacity for empathy and making beauty out of a chaotic-yet-beautiful world. Next time you feel apathy sneaking its tentacles into your life or wondering what you can possibly do in the face of injustice, try picking up a good book.
Photo by Gregory Woodman