How to Read Now: Essays
by Elaine Castillo
Published October 2022
In her collection of essays How to Read Now, Elaine Castillo rebuts the claim that reading builds empathy as one of ‘incomplete politics, left hanging by probably good intentions’. It is, she says, as if ‘diverse books’ serve as ‘empathy machines’ for readers seeking to validate their diversity credentials. In turn, the term diverse books is ‘impoverished’ because ‘we largely end up going to writers of color to learn the specific – and go to white writers to feel the universal’. The book’s introduction and opening two essays underpin a collection that advocates for more politically engaged, contextual, sophisticated, uncomfortable, uncertain, messy, and personal ways of reading.
The belief in a causal link between reading and empathy is commonly held. This observation by Joyce Carol Oates, for example, has acquired the status of inspirational quote: ‘Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul’. In her contribution to the Guardian series ‘Words to live by’, journalist Natasha May praises a particular author and book, George Eliot and Middlemarch, for showing her the need to try to understand other people’s perspectives. While May is circumspect about her capacity to ‘fully understand another’s inner world’, she says Eliot helped show her:
that I have to try my best to do so, however imperfectly. The only problem has been keeping Eliot’s advice front of mind at moments of weakness, when I am most overwhelmed by my own grievances, my own perspective.
Understanding Eliot’s advice is only the beginning – putting it into practice is a lifelong challenge. For many of us who write or work in publishing, the term ‘empathy’ has become shorthand for why we do what we do; why we believe it is important; and why it should continue to matter as the twenty-first century approaches its middle decades. For example, two recent Instagram posts by industry magazine Books + Publishing, quote the author and illustrator of the children’s book Hedgehog the Wonder Dog: ‘Books are essential because they help us grow knowledge, empathy and dreams wildly beyond our own lived experiences’ (Dannika Patterson, author) and ‘I believe books are essential because they teach us empathy’ (Ross Morgan. illustrator). To each post, Books + Publishing has added a hardworking hashtag: #booksareessential. You know, #justlikeparamedics.
Castillo is far from the first commentator to query the value of empathy in the context of reading. Writer and cultural historian Maria Tumarkin doubts the principle of ‘empathy via identification’:
If we say it could have been me, shouldn’t we first ask who was she? And wouldn’t the answer to that usually take aeons of decoding? … There’s much that’s not known about others and much of it is unknowable. What can be grasped of another person’s suffering has limits. Ignore the limits and people become symbols, vessels in which we carry liquids of our choosing.
Zambian writer Namwali Serpell goes beyond the debates over whether, or to what extent, there is a causal link between reading and empathy. In conversation with Tumarkin, she questions assumptions about empathy’s societal value and utility:
More than ever, I think empathy is not just banal but dangerous – a distraction or a palliative for people who want to be and do good but have no tools, no opportunities, no imperative to take action. Systemic change needs deliberation, yes, but we’ve deliberated much of this already.
I am reluctant to try to settle on a firm ‘position’ about reading and empathy (uncertainty, not empathy, is my crutch of choice). I agree with Patterson and Morgan, if only to the extent that I believe that reading may sometimes promote empathy and that empathy can be a good thing when not overegged. As May shows, empathy is more valuable and real when worked on rather than taken as an assumed quality – a daily practice, as Castillo suggests. If that makes ‘doing empathy’ sound like exercising good moral hygiene, the analogy is apt.
In turn, though, I agree with Castillo’s critique of empathy, despite having drunk more than my fair share of what she calls ‘ethical protein shakes’. I find her viewpoint, and those of Serpell and Tumarkin, compelling. The act of reading does not guarantee prompt action, or any action, or the right action. It does not guarantee a particular outcome – or even the first step towards one. It does not turn readers into good people, any more than writing a book means you must be an ethical person. Empathy does not create a reader who is necessarily empathetic in the right ways, let alone guaranteeing influence over others or, especially, changing systems and power.
And yet I continue to believe that reading can expand a reader’s horizons; that it disrupts, provokes light bulb moments, invites speculation. I continue to believe that, by definition, an engaged global citizen should read beyond their comfort zone.
Where does all this leave me, beyond agreeing with everyone I cite, and, against my better judgment, allowing my own empathy to become the subject and meaning of my reading? For critic Kathy Chow, writing in the LA Review of Books, Castillo’s argument that readers use non-white writers for education and information is well-worn. In particular, Chow notes Lauren Michele Jackson’s influential 2020 essay, ‘What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?’ In turn, Chow ponders Castillo’s likely readership:
To turn Castillo’s question ‘Who is this writing for?’ back on her own text, the obvious answer is that it’s for readers like me, who are broadly ‘progressive’ and amenable to her arguments, or more likely already agree with them. Many of these readers might even be members of the white liberal literary establishment Castillo reprimands. White liberals do have a bottomless appetite for texts that tell them how white and liberal they are, after all.
Chow reads me like a book (see what I did there?). Good on me for my open-hearted engagement with a writer who rejects dominant assumptions, including mine, with force, purpose, nuance and exasperated humour. Having read Castillo’s words, I feel almost as courageous and forthright as she is.
I have read John Wyndham’s 1955 novel The Chrysalids many times since I first discovered it in the 1980s as a teenager, angst-ridden about Ronald Reagan’s Cold War. It has held me and shaped me in ways I do not fully understand and that have changed over decades. It lives permanently in the pile of books beside my bed.
The Chrysalids tells a post-apocalypse story about a community clinging to the remnants of a dimly remembered past. Life is low-tech and God-fearing: ‘BLESSED IS THE NORM’. Transport is by horse; there is much talk of crops and livestock. But little of this is quaint or idyllic. With relentless piety, the authorities identify and eradicate or banish ‘deviations’ and ‘mutants’: plants, animals, humans.
Some variations are invisible. A small group of friends – including David, the novel’s narrator – are telepathic. They communicate by shared thoughts while living in fear of exposure. Their number includes a young girl called Petra – David’s sister. Petra is innocent and untrained, but her ability to communicate is so potent that it reaches the inhabitants of a distant and technologically advanced place, Sealand, where telepathy is the norm. At one point, too, Petra displays the ability to see the emotions of one of the group – an unintended intrusion of privacy that resembles the assumed power and possibilities of empathy. Petra slips, as Oates might say, into another’s soul.
When their secret is exposed, David, Petra and the others flee, pursued by a posse of their families and neighbours. They reach the fringes, rough land inhabited by people banished over the decades. In the novel’s climax, the Sealanders arrive in a metal flying machine to save the remarkable Petra.
When the Sealanders land in the fringes, though, they deploy a web-like substance that kills everyone but Petra and her group. The Sealander in charge of the rescue is a white-suited woman who radiates purity and purpose. She explains that killing is ‘neither shameful nor shocking’ and that self-preservation is progressive and noble:
The unhappy Fringes people were condemned through no act of their own to a life of squalor and misery – there could be no future for them. As for those who condemned them –well, that too is the way of it. There have been lords of life before, you know. Did you ever hear of the great lizards? When the time came for them to be superseded they had to pass away.
Following the Sealander’s chilling, matter-of-fact justification, the novel ends with Petra’s unrestrained excitement radiating across Sealand as the flying ship delivers her to safety: a happy ending for a superior species.
With which characters in The Chyrsalids might the reader make an empathetic connection? Petra, David and their friends, persecuted by a narrow-minded community? Very likely. The people of the district? After the novel ends they will mourn their dead while not understanding what has happened, and in their grief they will continue the business of purifying themselves and their foodstuff while living in heightened fear of the future. Probably not, although they deserve it. The fringe-dwellers, such as David’s childhood friend, Sophie, exiled because of a sixth toe on one foot? Perhaps yes, when Sophie is a child. But Wyndham’s portrait of the adult Sophie, living in the fringes, invites pity and revulsion.
Meanwhile, the question itself – who receives the reader’s empathy? – is a narrow, boring, safe way to think about a post-apocalyptic novel published by an Englishman in the early Cold War era. The question avoids the complex layers of wrongdoing, trauma and historical context, both within the novel and in Wyndham’s life and times.
Wyndham never published a sequel. But I like to imagine Petra as an adult, a great leader with unparalleled political and telepathic powers, deciding whether the Sealanders who rescued her should face trial for crimes against humanity. It could go either way.
Dannika Patterson links reading to the acquisition of empathy (and knowledge and dreams) that is ‘wildly beyond our own lived experiences’. Lived experience is the real thing. By contrast, empathy is a glimpse of someone else’s real thing, filtered through the lived experience and worldview of the empathiser.
It may seem straightforward but definitions of lived experience vary. In its Vision 2030 document, the National Mental Health Commission describes it in these terms:
The knowledge and expertise gained by a person or community through their life experiences. Lived experience may mean different things depending on the group being considered and lived experience may refer to any range of health, caring, cultural or identity related circumstances.
Lived experience here is contextual: she has lived experience of seeking asylum; they have lived experience of caring for a family member with early onset dementia; I have lived experience in failing to play test cricket for Australia. Castillo draws a contrast between the intellectual idea of writing How to Read Now versus ‘the actual lived experience’ of doing so during the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic, ‘where systemic injustice and government neglect has meant predominantly poorer Black and Brown communities have borne the brunt of COVID-19’s destruction’.
In policymaking and service delivery, including in health and wellbeing contexts, ‘lived experience’ means more than fancifying ‘what I have done in my life’. In part, yes, it is about providing avenues for people with certain lived experiences to recount their experiences and perspectives – or, if you like, tell their stories – especially when previously they have been ignored, downgraded, misunderstood, or interpreted through other, dominant critical lenses and power structures. As cultural studies researcher Jill Bennett puts it, the person with lived experience should be able to say who they ‘need to see and hear this’.
But the growing validation of lived experience in the policy sphere goes beyond the telling and hearing of diverse stories. It goes beyond the receiver of the story empathising with the storyteller. It is about policy reinvention, co-design, the building and empowering of lived experience workforces, the meaningful disruption of power imbalances, and so on. The incorporation of lived experience into the search for solutions to real-life issues is not anti-expert, but it requires a widened understanding of what constitutes an evidence base. It requires, too, a widening of what we are prepared to acknowledge as ‘expertise’. Lived experience is subjective, but it also reveals the subjectivities of other types of evidence.
I could, if I felt the urge, characterise my recent reading as my lived experience of reading Elaine Castillo (and re-reading John Wyndham, and so on). I could go on to try to define a broader lived experience of reading. After all, reading is experiential, it is personal, it is meaningful. But to do so would be to co-opt the intent of the term lived experience to help mischaracterise, however inadvertently, the act of reading. As Serpell says in the New York Review of Books, narrative offers a ‘virtual experience’. It can do so brilliantly: ‘It simulates empathy, so we believe it stimulates it’. To read Castillo is not to become Castillo or even Castillo-like.
Chow describes Castillo’s novel America is Not the Heart as ‘less pedagogical and more curious’ than her essays. But How to Read Now is not a manual, beyond Castillo’s high-level invitation that readers avoid trying to walk a mile in her shoes but instead ask themselves whether their own path is too straight. Castillo’s non-fiction is not incurious compared to her fiction. The apparent instruction in the book’s title can, as Castillo suggests, be read as a question: how to read now? For Castillo, to answer this question must involve the relentless contextualising of books and other art, and the rejection that reading can be neutral, pure, dispassionate, apolitical. The answer will draw on her upbringing, her culture, her experiences, her evolving worldview, her reading history, including her father’s influence on formative reading, and the way all those elements coalesce.
Castillo connects the reading of books to what she calls the reading of the world: ‘How to Read Now runs off the tongue a little easier than How to Dismantle Your Entire Critical Apparatus’. She deploys her critical apparatus to take contemptuous aim at the term ‘cancel culture’ and those she calls ‘the art-for-arts-sake gang, here to rout out political correctness, save literature, and make sure we all have the right to keep reading the same white Europeans forevermore’.
For example, Castillo’s examination of Austrian writer Peter Handke – both his work, particularly the novel Across, and suggestions his work can be read in a depoliticised way – leads her to a broader conclusion: ‘The people who think that upholding a heavily edited and whitewashed truth about an author’s historical context is the only viable way to truly protect and honor that author’s work, are in fact protecting and honoring something else entirely’. In Castillo’s view, the avoidance of contexts, and readers’ capacities to ignore, downplay or miss the universalising of whiteness, equates to prioritising empathy for those with privilege, power and storytelling authority.
It is a joy and a comfort to observe Castillo delegitimising ‘cancel culture’ with ease, force and wit. But the comfort is false: cancel culture is a term that serves no legitimate purpose in any debate about free speech, cultural interpretations, or political perspectives or policies. And yet it loiters in mainstream discourse, hollow and impervious.
An excessive emphasis on empathy as a by-product of reading runs the risk of muting a reader’s personal contexts, of mixing up action and inaction, and of imagining that such inaction can be apolitical. Empathy, psychologist Batja Mesquita says:
Assumes that deep inside we have the same emotions and that if you are attuned enough to another person, you will understand how they feel. The empathy assumption says that you would feel similarly in a similar situation. We can’t and shouldn’t project ourselves in this way. Instead, you can start to understand how another person feels by being aware that it is not how you feel.
Castillo seeks ‘unexpected readers’, that is, readers whose different critical perspectives, beliefs and modes of thinking mean that they do not read a writer the way the writer and other readers might expect or hope. This is very different to a reader who reads about the lived experiences of others, however widely and with whatever positive intent. To read How to Read Now as an instruction, as a demand, is to do a disservice to Castillo’s willingness to expose a portion of her life, times and inner world while showing what it means to be an unexpected reader in a world where we are not ‘equal consumers of art and equal subjects of art’.
Jill Bennett, ‘Lived Experience and the Limits (and Possibilities) of Empathy’, Cultural Studies Review, 25, 2, December 2019.
Elaine Castillo, America is Not the Heart, Atlantic Books, 2018.
Kathy Chow, ‘Who Is This Writing For? On Elaine Castillo’s “How to Read Now”’, Los Angeles Review of Books.
Natasha May, ‘Words to live by’, The Guardian, 21 January 2023.
Batja Mesquita, ‘“It Is Not How You Feel”: Batja Mesquita on How Different Cultures Experience Emotions’, Public Books, 2 February 2023,
Namwali Serpell, ‘The Banality of Empathy’, New York Review of Books, 2 March 2019,.
Namwali Serpell and Maria Tumarkin, ‘Unethical Reading and the Limits of Empathy’, Yale Review, Winter 2020.
National Mental Health Commission, Vision 2030, Australian Government, .
Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic, Brow Books, 2018.
John Wyndham, The Chyrsalids, Penguin, 1955.