“What is your favorite book of all time?” When I have been asked this question over the past 15 years my likely response was “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett. The problem was I could never really explain what was so invigorating about this book. The characters have rough lives full of conflict, strife, and disappointment. Everything good happens to the most evil antagonists, while the heroes of the story face an endless stream of tragedy and heartbreak. What is so redeeming about a novel that drags the reader through such a torrent of despair and sorrow? Why would we endure such torment and why would we look back on the experience with such delight?
As I was reading Follett’s long awaited follow up to Pillars, “World Without End”, I began to ponder this challenging topic. Why do we love these stories that cause us very real distress as we engage in them? Are those few and far between triumphs for the characters so rewarding after the horrors of their lives? Do these tragic lives bring perspective to our relatively cushy circumstances? Perhaps partially on both accounts. But I think the true answer is rooted in the very essence of what makes us human. The one differentiating factor that separates us from every other living being on earth: empathy.
What exactly is empathy? Loosely defined, empathy is the capacity to recognize feelings that are being experienced by another being. But the importance of empathy is most easily recognized by examining the world without it. Without empathy you would never feel compassion and would be completely indifferent to the suffering of others. You would care neither if your spouse was distraught over the loss of a lifelong friend nor if your child was heartbroken from the loss of their first “true love”. The concept of being indifferent to these emotionally powerful examples is foreign to us as humans. And arguably this ability and propensity to empathize is the cornerstone of culture, friendship, and the essence of family.
Recent research has tracked empathy to something called mirror neurons. These mirror neurons activate not only when we perform a certain action, but also when we watch another being perform a certain action. It is widely thought that these mirror neurons are what allow us to learn important skills from infancy in the classic “monkey see, monkey do” style. And though it is true that monkeys and primates both exhibit mirror neuron functions, the development of the portion of the brain that contains these neurons is markedly more advanced in humans. Interestingly, many recent studies on autistic children focus on the retarded function of these brain areas, potentially leading to answers of why these kids struggle socially and often display little or no empathy towards others. Could it be that these highly developed brain stages allow us to empathize with family, friends, complete strangers, or even fictitious characters in a book or movie?
“World without End” certainly drags plenty of empathy from your average reader. The book takes place in 14th century England and entails wars, plagues, and famines. However, the story is all about a handful of characters, entwined in a way that is both hard to fathom and completely believable. Some of the characters you love, and others you loathe. Oddly, when bad stuff happens to some of the characters that you are made to hate, you will often feel a pang of pity or regret, empathizing with the circumstances that set them along the road to brutality and evil. Not so different than our normal lives, where we seeks answers to Hitler’s broken past to help explain the monstrosities of his life or we seek answers for why American teens would fire heedlessly into their schoolmates and then take their own lives. Empathy can be a strange emotion.
This book is an emotional roller-coaster that reminds me of why I loved the first one, despite falling flat in certain areas. It reminded me of why we love stories that truly get us to do something that is wholly human, in empathizing with the characters and sharing in the pain with them. To tap into these emotions by simply reading about someone’s fictitious life over 600 years ago, relating to their triumphs and tribulations in a way that is far beyond logical. To be able to tap these feeling is truly a gift, and Ken Follet is clearly a master.
Pages: 816 FOA Pages: 6537 (Total number of pages reported on by the Friends of Atticus)