Have the last fifteen months – horrible in all sorts of ways for everyone – changed what we read – and how we read?
Lots of us may have turned to comfort reading – books which make no demands and distract us from the turmoil and sadness around us. Books which help us sleep. Books with happy endings which cocoon us in a safer, more sunlit world. Or historical fiction so we can be transported into another time. The past may have been brutal and squalid for many, but at least it’s escaping from the horrors of the present. Or crime fiction with its pleasures of puzzle-solving and the satisfaction of order restored. Books we loved as children and teenagers, and now search for with nostalgia and a longing to recapture something lost.
Others may have grasped the opportunity to tackle books they’ve always meant to read and somehow never quite got round to – classics, ‘difficult’ authors, unfamiliar genres.
I haven’t managed many of those. The most serious book I have been reading this week is non-fiction: Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor in developmental psychopathology at Cambridge University and director of the Autism Research Centre. It’s not his most recent book, being published in 2011, and I’ve read it before, but events in the UK drew me back to it. The front flap of my hardback says that it ‘presents a new way of understanding what it is that leads individuals to treat others inhumanely, and challenges all of us to reconsider entirely the idea of evil.’ On the back cover Uta Frith, Emeritus Professor of Cognitive Development at University College London, writes that the book is ‘a compelling and provocative account of empathy as our most precious social resource.’
Baron-Cohen argues that ‘Empathy is like a universal solvent. Any problem immersed in empathy becomes soluble. It is effective as a way of anticipating and resolving interpersonal problems, whether this is a marital conflict, an international conflict, a problem at work, difficulties in a friendship, political deadlocks, a family dispute, or a problem with the neighbour.’
With so much suffering and mental illness everywhere resulting from the pandemic, empathy is something we need more than ever. Reading, as we identify with fictional characters and care what happens to them, must surely be a vital way of building up our capacity for empathy.
Back to how we read. The pandemic and lockdown has meant that even those of us who love the tactile feel of physical books may have taken to e-books for the first time. No shelf space for more physical books and it’s hard to make room for any with the charity shops being shut.
It’s why I’ve relaunched e-book editions of All Desires Known and Of Human Telling. Hard-hitting stories of family and marital conflict behind closed doors – ‘sharp-eyed, funny and redemptive’. They might be a good e-book read at Easter.