Reading for empathy

I consider myself lucky to know people (online and offline) who read widely. I know that we might not see eye to eye on what we read, or on all sorts of other issues, but we do agree that there is something important about books and the ideas they contain.

In Design Observer recently, Ken Gordon described how he found new meaning in Philip Roth’s novel, The Plot Against America.

…buried in The Plot is a surprise. I didn’t realize until this go-around, but the novel contains, among many other virtues, a superb illustration of how empathy informs good design. That’s right: Philip Roth, designer manqué!

In addition to the normal modes of scenic description, common to many novelists, Gordon describes how one of Roth’s characters solves a problem for another just as a designer would. That vignette is enough for Gordon to consider the book worthy of inclusion on the syllabus of an introductory design course. But he makes a more important point at the end of his article.

As an undergraduate law student, I was encouraged to read novels with legal themes, such as Dickens’s Bleak House or Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  There is certainly merit in that, just as a design student might learn from the subtle way Roth deals with a design problem in The Plot Against America. Gordon’s broader point is that the practice of reading novels gives broader benefits than that.

The Plot is a novel of grand design, and I’d love to see more designers read this, and other such books, as a way of educating themselves in empathy. Submersing ourselves in great works of literature is a wonderful way to train us to be more human.

So I say to you, designers, students, aspiring humanists: If you’re serious about understanding people, feeling for people, and using that to inform your design, you’d do well to read superlative works of fiction. The Plot is a fantastic example, but it’s one of many, many volumes you should be extracting from the shelves.

Other forms of fiction may be equally powerful. I am reminded of Roger Ebert’s perspective, in the biographical film, Life Itself:

…the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.

In an age when legal practice is being improved by intelligent applications of technology, empathy is an increasingly important aspect of what it means to be a valued practitioner. Clients are people, so lawyers should read widely, for similar reasons as designers and other humanists. (Whether or not design is brought into the business itself.)

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