7 Literary Fiction Suggestions That Will Deepen Your Empathy

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By Adrienne Fontaine, publicist

It seems that every week there’s a new trend article about who’s reading, why we’re reading, what reading does to us, and where reading is going.  A lot of these come to pretty obvious conclusions, yet I find myself, ironically enough, reading each one the minute it’s published.

One recent study found that “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy.” To all the literary fiction fans out there, this is certainly unsurprising. Most readers of fiction read because they either want to escape from their own lives or explore those of others.  Either way, if the book is enjoyable, the reader has most likely put her mind in the place of at least one of the characters. Some readers will choose stories that appeal to them because they already know something about the “world” the author has created; more curious readers will choose books that show them an entirely unique set of places and/or characters. In my elementary school days, I was drawn to books and series like The Boxcar Children, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Harriet the Spy, and others that would probably fall under the parody “Stuff White Girls Like.” In my teen years, my reading enveloped a more diverse set of perspectives with novels like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Beloved, Things Fall Apart, and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit.

As an adult, my literary curiosity has only broadened. Fictional stories about the immigrant experience, fictional accounts of political upheaval from South America to Hong Kong, native folk tales… These are the books I choose. To say that reading them has improved my empathy is an understatement. I have not only experienced the feelings of people from cultures unlike my own, but I have also come to understand the complexities of what bounds them and how, despite certain obvious differences, we are all incredibly similar.

Below are some of the books that have expanded my horizons and shown me perspectives that only writing can really bring (I could add so many more – stories by Alexander Hemon comes to mind). And one might ask, “Why so many books set in wartime, when the world has never been so peaceful?” Reading these books has helped me understand the generations before us and what they and their countries went through. Knowing what happened can only bring even more empathy and hope for a peaceful future.

A Tale of Love and Darkness, by Amos Oz: the story of a boy growing up in war-torn Jerusalem in the 1940s and 50s.

The Inheritance of Loss, by Kiran Desai: about an orphaned girl growing up in the Himalayas, her family, and the families of those she meets along the way.

The Brief Wondrous Life  of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz: coming-of-age story about a Dominican nerd from New Jersey who recounts the  gruesome history of the Dominican Republic under the dictator Trujillo and much more.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, by Umberto Eco: an aging rare-book dealer in Milan tells the story of his childhood under Mussolini and the cultural artifacts the time inspired.

Beasts of No Nation, by Uzodinma Iweala: Tells the inner conflict of Agu, a child soldier in West Africa.

Deniro’s Game, by Rawi Hage: childhood friends in war-torn Beirut must choose between stay or become exiles.

The Piano Teacher, by Janice Y.K. Lee: A love story in 1950’s Hong Kong, during the invasion of the Japanese on Hong Kong.

I urge all readers to open their minds to literary fiction that encapsulates history and crosses cultures and generations. And don’t forget books in translation!


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