"Inciting the Reader to Create a Better World": Jami Attenberg on Books that Improve Empathy

JamiNumerous studies suggest that reading, particularly literary fiction, improves empathy. In a world that seems to be pickling in vitriol, enhancing our ability to understand and have compassion for the thoughts and feelings of others can bring the temperature down a bit, and ease divisiveness. Where to start? We asked bestselling author Jami Attenberg for recommendations. Three of her novels have been Best of the Month picks--The Middlesteins, Saint Mazie, and a book that has been topping many must-read lists this spring, including ours, All Grown Up. At the end of it, the main character has an epiphany that will punch you in the heart. I wanted to know which books walloped Ms. Attenberg that way--books that snap us out of self absorption, and "incite the reader to create a better world."


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The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
A sublime collection of essays where Jamison grapples with understanding the pain of others. “Empathy isn’t just something that happens to us — a meteor shower of synapses firing across the brain — it’s also a choice we make,” she writes.
 

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Grace Paley: The Collected Stories
Paley wrote with a vivid zest for life, and her characters demonstrated humanity with their wit, voice, and actions. There’s a lot of love in her stories, and we can learn a lot by witnessing that love.
 

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The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
Jackson’s prose is so beautifully written as to be uplifting all on its own. But also this tale of two American girls seeking recovery from tragedy in their grandmother’s home in Barbados expresses themes of community, family, forgiveness so exquisitely, I thought about it for weeks afterward.
 

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Bright Dead Things: Poems by Ada Limón
Shortlisted for both the National Book Award and National Book Critic’s Circle Award, Limón's fourth book teaches us how to have an open heart with the honesty of her words. “How to Triumph Like a Girl” is a roaring call to rise up: “Ears up, girls, ears up!”
 

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Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
Out this May, Sullivan’s fourth novel includes incredible musings on faith, love, forgiveness, and caring for one another. She is wise beyond her years.
 

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Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl
Now more than ever it feels particularly urgent to revisit the words of this bright young woman. “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world,” she wrote.
 

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Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
This illuminating graphic memoir describing Satrapi’s life in Iran during the Islamic revolution is witty, punk, and feisty, and her depiction of her family members utterly humane.
 

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Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Winner of the National Book Award for Poetry, Citizen was an instant classic, a powerful invitation for everyone to contemplate race and empathy in America. Her words incite the reader to create a better world.

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What a fresh, thoughtful article! Happy to have some new books to explore.

Posted by: Tessa Smith McGovern | Friday March 10, 2017 at 5:25 AM

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