Building Empathy: A Surprising Reading List For A Better Work Life

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The idea of picking up a classic like Anna Karenina might sooner cause some of us to groan -- either from the sheer weight of the thing or from memories of slogging through it in the high school classroom -- than to imagine it helping us with our relationships.

But researchers Emanuale Castano and David Kidd of the New School for Social Research in New York are saying it does just that. In a recent study, the social psychologists found that reading literary fiction helps readers more readily connect and empathize with their fellow humans.

"Understanding others' mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies," they said in the study.

What about nonfiction and popular fiction? Nonfiction -- at least the serious, impersonal kind like "The Story of the Most Common Bird in the World," a work used in the study -- is not effective at all. Pop fiction, even if it's about people, is not much better, the researchers found.

"Maybe popular fiction is a way of dealing more with one's own self, maybe, with one's own wants, desires, needs," Albert Wendland, a Seton Hill University popular fiction professor, told the New York Times.

By comparison, literary fiction, whether it's classic or contemporary, often forces the reader to walk in someone else's shoes and take on the world from their point of view. Imagining yourself as someone else could very well be the key to the study's conclusion. Think about the least empathetic people in the world -- children -- and this starts to make sense. Children are a blank slate with few experiences to draw from. They are always learning how their actions affect others. In fact, to build empathy in kids, Pam Allyn at Psychology Today recommends to raise a reader.

How can you apply this to work life?

For those who aren't avid readers and may blush to admit they haven't even picked up a novel in years, starting with something as dense as War and Peace might not be a good idea.

"The learning that results from such works is subtle and circuitous, and has none of the quick application that, for example, any guidebook of instructions would provide," Dr. Wendland told AOL Jobs.

Systematic reading, however, will provide results. Wendland has a suggestion for a jumping off point. "One book that does outrightly teach empathy (if not interviewing skills): To Kill a Mockingbird."

Reading has the added benefits of lowering your risk of getting Alzheimer's, reducing stress, improving your memory and even making you seem sexier. This an obvious truth, but bears repeating since reading rates among Americans have dropped precipitously over the years: reading books just makes you smarter overall. And as AOL Jobs reported recently, empathy will be an important job skill to master to get ahead in the future.

With the help of experts, AOL Jobs has compiled a suggested reading list containing books that are great starters for people looking to improve relationships in their day-to-day work life and, by extension, bolster their overall well being. If you get through this list and find that you have an appetite for more, we suggest joining a book club or checking out the titles that made Oprah Winfrey's Complete List.

Remember: this list is not intended to change you into an interviewing guru or a social butterfly -- it's all about shifting your perspective.

If you have your own literary fiction suggestions, leave them in the comments below.

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Building Empathy: A Reading List For A Better Work Life
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Building Empathy: A Surprising Reading List For A Better Work Life

By Harper Lee

"Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior - to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos." -Amazon

Recommended by: Albert Wendland, popular fiction professor at Seton Hill University

By Khaled Hosseini

"The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father's servant, The Kite Runner is a beautifully crafted novel set in a country that is in the process of being destroyed." -Amazon

Recommended by: Albert Wendland, popular fiction professor at Seton Hill University

By Joseph O'Neill

"In a New York City made phantasmagorical by the events of 9/11, and left alone after his English wife and son return to London, Hans van den Broek stumbles upon the vibrant New York subculture of cricket, where he revisits his lost childhood and, thanks to a friendship with a charismatic and charming Trinidadian named Chuck Ramkissoon, begins to reconnect with his life and his adopted country. As the two men share their vastly different experiences of contemporary immigrant life in America, an unforgettable portrait emerges of an "other" New York populated by immigrants and strivers of every race and nationality." -Amazon

Recommended by: Keith Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto

By Alice Munro

"In these fifteen short stories--her eighth collection of short stories in a long and distinguished career--Alice Munro conjures ordinary lives with an extraordinary vision, displaying the remarkable talent for which she is now widely celebrated." -Amazon

Recommended by: Keith Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. He particularly recommends the short story titled: "The Office."

By Joseph Conrad

"This brief but intense story is a dramatically fictionalized account of Conrad’s first command as a young sea captain trapped aboard a becalmed, fever-wracked, and seemingly haunted ship... The Shadow-Line depicts a young man at a crossroads in his life, facing a desperate crisis that marks the “shadow-line” between youth and maturity." -Amazon

Recommended by: Keith Oatley, professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto.

By Carson McCullers

"It is about a deaf man named John Singer and the people he encounters in a 1930s mill town in the US state of Georgia. It created a literary sensation on publication, enjoying a meteoric rise to the top of the bestseller lists in 1940 and was the first in a string of works by McCullers to give voice to the rejected, forgotten, mistreated and oppressed." -Wikipedia

Recommended by: Albert Wendland, popular fiction professor at Seton Hill University

By Sapphire

"An electrifying first novel that shocks by its language, its circumstances, and its brutal honesty, Push recounts a young black street-girl's horrendous and redemptive journey through a Harlem inferno." -Amazon

Recommended by: AOL Jobs staff

By Junot Diaz

"Oscar is a sweet but disastrously overweight ghetto nerd who—from the New Jersey home he shares with his old world mother and rebellious sister—dreams of becoming the Dominican J.R.R. Tolkien and, most of all, finding love. But Oscar may never get what he wants. Blame the fukú—a curse that has haunted Oscar’s family for generations, following them on their epic journey from Santo Domingo to the USA. Encapsulating Dominican-American history, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao opens our eyes to an astonishing vision of the contemporary American experience and explores the endless human capacity to persevere—and risk it all—in the name of love." -Amazon

Recommended by: AOL Jobs staff

By Elizabeth Berg

"The narrator of Elizabeth Berg's Open House calls divorce "a series of internal earthquakes... one after the other." She ought to know. Samantha is abandoned by her husband in the opening pages of this three-handkerchief special, and the resultant tremors keep her off-balance for most of the novel. There are practical problems aplenty, of course, including a shortage of money and an 11-year-old son to raise." -Amazon

Recommended by: Oprah's Book Club

By George Orwell

"As ferociously fresh as it was more than a half century ago, this remarkable allegory of a downtrodden society of overworked, mistreated animals and their quest to create a paradise of progress, justice, and equality is one of the most scathing satires ever published. As readers witness the rise and bloody fall of the revolutionary animals, they begin to recognize the seeds of totalitarianism in the most idealistic organization -- and in the most charismatic leaders, the souls of the cruelest oppressors." -Amazon

Recommended by: Albert Wendland, popular fiction professor at Seton Hill University

By Wally Lamb

"Meet Dolores Price. She's 13, wise-mouthed but wounded, having bid her childhood goodbye. Stranded in front of her bedroom TV, she spends the next few years nourishing herself with the Mallomars, potato chips, and Pepsi her anxious mother supplies. When she finally orbits into young womanhood at 257 pounds, Dolores is no stronger and life is no kinder. But this time she's determined to rise to the occasion and give herself one more chance before she really goes under." -Amazon

Recommended by: AOL Jobs staff

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