Charlotte’s Web was the first book I can remember that really moved me. From the moment Fern saved that little runt, Wilbur, I loved him. My tiny eight-year-old heart swelled over his friendship with the spider Charlotte and it was broken by her death—and Wilbur’s loss of his best friend.
Then there was Ponyboy in The Outsiders, Piggy in Lord of the Flies, Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye, whose stories broke my heart. Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester drove me crazy with their chaste love; I both admired and loathed Scarlett O’Hara, and Holly Golightly felt like that friend who always gets you into trouble but she’s just so exciting you can’t resist.
Whether it be compassion, love, pity, admiration, infatuation, or fear; and no matter how different their lives may be from mine, all those characters and so many others have allowed me to look at the world from the inside out through their eyes.
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So intuitively, it didn’t really surprise me back in 2013 when a study came out with the finding that reading literary fiction improves a person’s ability to understand other people’s emotions. In other words, those who read literary fiction are more empathetic.
For me, it is a chicken and egg question: Am I more empathetic because I read so much, or do I read so much because I feel more for the characters than other people? Then again, who cares? What matters is how much value books have brought to my life by allowing me to see the world from so many different perspectives and through the lens of so many different experiences.
Reading Charlotte’s Web when I was so young, I experienced aging ahead of my time, and death long before I lost anyone close to me. I have cheated and been cheated on; I have loved many times over, and I have felt the pang of a broken heart more times than I have had my own heart broken.
Through all these layered experiences, my love of books has given me a deeper connection with others. The experiences I have read about helping me feel a stronger bond with those I know in real life.
And more importantly, it has allowed me to see that no matter where we come from, or what we go through, you and I aren’t so different. We love, we cry, and we try to handle the highs and lows that life throws at us as best we can—often messily, but sometimes with grace.
And that is one of the most powerful reasons I keep coming back. Because reading has let me explore the infinite pathways of the human heart and find my own humanity there.