It seems like every week brings a new sad development in Haiti—cholera a couple of weeks ago, flooding from Hurricane Tomas this week—added to the devastation of the earthquake earlier in the year. I was particularly sad this week to see people in Leogane, where I visited a couple of years ago, dragging themselves through waist deep water. Then there are the earthquakes in Indonesia… Viewing these images on TV makes us stop for at least a moment and imagine what it must be like for people whose lives are devastated by these disasters, to empathize.
The New York Times’ Jane Brody, in her excellent piece “Empathy’s Natural, but Nurturing It Helps” says that, “Empathy, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and recognize and respond to what that person is feeling, is an essential ingredient of a civilized society. Lacking empathy, people act only out of self-interest, without regard for the well-being or feelings of others. The absence of empathy fosters antisocial behavior, cold-blooded murder, genocide.”
From natural disasters to politics (some might see those as overlapping), it seems like we could all use a little dose of empathy these days. Brody reports that one way to cultivate empathy in children is “reading books and talking about how people (or animals) in a story feel and why they feel that way.” Reading Rockets, a great Web site about “launching young readers,” has an interesting article called, “It Happened Over There: Understanding and Empathy Through Children’s Books.” Scroll down to the end of the article for children’s book suggestions.
I’d add that it’s not too late for older children and adults, too, to cultivate empathy by reading. Think about To Kill a Mockingbird, The Diary of Ann Frank, Dave Eggers’ What is the What, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl DuWinn’s Half the Sky, Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kiterunner for starters. Do you have other suggestions for “empathy reading?”
Travel is, of course, another way to gain understanding and empathy for people whose lives are far different from ours. It’s not always possible to travel (or in the case of places with natural disasters, desirable), but you can do it through the pages of a book.
I’ve finally had a chance to take a look at Google Lit Trips. It’s an amazing way to use technology to teach/understand reading and literature and to visualize the connection between what you read and where it takes place. Designed by English teacher Jerome Burg, Lit Trips uses Google Earth as well as contributions from educators and students to map the movements of characters over a plot’s timeline while providing excerpts, pictures, and links at each location.
It’s necessary to download Google Earth and do a little experimentation, but for example, you can follow the path of the Joad Family in the Grapes of Wrath, get a real-time view of those locales right, see photos from the era, study questions and much more. Though
it was intended for students, it’s great for anyone taking kids on a trip or for people who are just interested in having a greater connection to the literature. Look at the Downloads, etc. page to find the list of books that you can take a trip with–no passport required.
I’ve been reading with great jealousy about the first annual “Beverly Hills Literary Escape” which takes place October 22-24. Since I’m just returning from a trip then, I can’t make it to Beverly Hills, but the lineup sounds fantastic and hopefully there will be a second annual event. Their web site has already inspired me to place an order for David Ulin’s The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Are Important in a Distracted Time.
Organizers bill the event as “an exciting weekend of unique events designed for the discerning reader. An intersection of literary culture and entertainment, BHLE brings together food, wine and books. Offering insider access to the country’s most sought after authors through novel experiences set amidst the luxury of Beverly Hills.” Check out the activities and the list of authors who will be on tap.
My book club has read several books by authors who will be at this event. Some favorites include Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us and Gail Tsukiyama’s novels Women of the Silk and The Samurai’s Garden.
I chuckled when I read that a portion of proceeds from event tickets and book sales will benefit the Beverly Hills Public Library. I haven’t spent a lot of time there, but from what I’ve seen of Beverly Hills, their library is probably in pretty good shape already. Nonetheless, the event’s organizers, Julie Robinson and Tyson Cornell, are hitting what is for me the sweet spot where literature connects with community—when readers go “beyond the book” so share ideas and meaningful conversation with authors and fellow readers, face to face.
For those of us who won’t be mingling in the luxury of Beverly Hills, the event is a good one to inspire our own local literary “salons” on a smaller scale.
The great travel writer Pico Iyer wrote an essay for Salon.com many years ago that is one of the best discussions about why we travel that I’ve seen. http://www.salon.com/travel/feature/2000/03/18/why
He says, “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And, we travel, in essence to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
It strikes me that you could substitute the word “read” for travel in that paragraph and the meaning would be the same. When we “escape with a good book,” we read to lose ourselves and sometimes find ourselves along the way just like someone who is wandering the streets and alleyways of a foreign country. Most of us can’t live the life of a travel writer, a vagabond, or an independently wealthy aristocrat on the grand tour of Europe ala the characters that populate the works of Edith Wharton or Henry James. But we can go there in a book.
However, the best of all worlds is to combine the two. Ever since I was in grade school, I loved to read about the places we were going on family vacations. Reading Esther Forbes’s “Johnny Tremain” before a trip to Boston made the visit come alive for me. Ditto for Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings,” which I read with my children before a trip to Boston where we waddled across the street to the Public Garden following the path of Mack, Jack, Kack, Quack and the other ducklings.
That might be the best part—becoming young fools again.
I’m a member of two book clubs. Both groups have been together for years. We’ve bonded with Jane Austen, argued about Anna Karenina and struggled down The Road with Cormac McCarthy. We’ve praised and panned books, hosted their authors at our meetings and attended readings in bookstores. We’ve analyzed authors’ possibly dysfunctional origins (seriously, how can you look at the world that way?), literary styles, symbolism and deep meaning of the books we’ve read. Okay, not all the time.
I admit that our meetings have not always been devoted to highbrow literary discussion. We’ve eaten acres of dessert and consumed vineyards of wine. Our children, who were upstairs trying to sleep during these meetings, will attest to the noise level. In addition to our love of literature and reading, we’ve shared our lives—children, marriages and relationships, aging parents. And now we’re adding another chapter—travel.
One group in particular has talked for years about how much fun it would be to actually see a place that we’ve read about. “We should all go there…for our 30th birthdays, for our 40th birthdays…. This year we finally did it. We hopped on a plane from Minneapolis to Chicago, the scene of several of the books we’ve read, in particular Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City. More about that wonderful trip later.
The more I tell people about our trip, the more I hear about how their book clubs, too, have started to travel together—both close-to-home “field trips” and longer, more exotic excursions. There seems to be a trend here. So, this blog will explore the places where literature and travel intersect, how to escape with a good book and understand the places we travel, with or without a book group, through the eyes of authors who have gone there before us.
Let’s get out of the living room and hit the road.