The Sociological Spectre of Apathy

This is going to be one of those blog posts which asks more questions than it answers, so please bear with me. I like to prompt debate about things which matter to me; this is one of them.

books1I have a friend I’ve known for half my life. I don’t see him very often and when we do meet up, like many friends, the conversation revolves around work, family and mutual friends.

Recently, he happened to mention that his eleven year-old son hadn’t performed as well in school exams as he had expected, and my friend was concerned about this.

Now, his son goes to a fee-paying school. Both parents work – his wife runs a lucrative domicilary care business and he is a company director in another firm as well. This is not a family that is short of resources in the slightest.

“I bet I know one reason why,” I said, and shot him a knowing look. “When was the last time he read a book for pleasure?”

“Oh, I dunno,” came the reply. “Reading’s not his thing really.”

…not his thing…

I shivered.

Sadly, I fear that my friend’s son is not alone. I hear this much more often than I would like to, and it fills me with dismay.


Studies have shown (click here to read more) that those who read fiction are more inclined to be quick to empathise with others and especially when this reading skill is developed in younger children. It teaches them to detect and understand how certain actions affect the feelings of other people.

We all know how a good story allows you to feel what the characters feel. How many of us have laughed and cried, felt the glow of romantic love or the despair of grief, when reading a story? This is the power of a good author. My favourite books are those which have taken me on an emotional roller-coaster. I want to be reaching for the tissues when I read, I want to be moved.

But for children like my friend’s son, brought up with no books in the house other than his mother’s nursing textbooks, what does this do a child’s emotional development?

Not having my own children, it may be inappropriate of me to comment upon the upbringing of other people’s offspring. But, actually, I think there’s a wider issue here.

If children don’t learn to empathise, what sort of people do they turn out to be? Isn’t that sort of the definition of a sociopath? And, are we convinced that enough emphasis is put upon reading books for pleasure, both in schools and at home?


As a little girl, my mum used to take me to the local library. In the middle of the children’s area I remember seeing an enormous wooden box, full of brightly-coloured books for young children. (It probably wasn’t all that big, but I was only a toddler at the time!)

Mum tells me, even now, that I would have favourites that I kept asking for, week in, week out. The poor woman must have been bored to tears having to read the same books over and over! But, I am eternally grateful to her for bestowing upon me the greatest gift in the world. For, in teaching me to love literature, she taught me how to escape this world and travel to far-flung places, to have adventures beyond my wildest dreams.

I flew with dragons; I fought demons and befriended angels; I toppled evil tyrants and replaced them on the thrones of lands far, far away; and, I fell in love, over and over and over, with characters who possessed magical abilities, and yet, ultimately, very human traits.

My life would have been immeasurably different without books. Certainly, I doubt I would ever have become a writer. In my opinion, it’s shameful that there are children growing up in our society without being shown the door into this enchanting world of books.

So, I would welcome your comments here. What are your experiences of teaching your own or other people’s children to read? Is it really that important, or am I just banging on about something which is none of my business, being childfree?


7 thoughts on “The Sociological Spectre of Apathy

  1. Spot on! I taught English at secondary level, and I could always spot the ‘reader’. Without fail they progressed happily up the school, finding GCSE easy to cope with. As a former librarian, I an so angry with the current government’s cut in local funding, meaning libraries are closing or not opening. Many poor families cannot afford books. When I worked at Harlesden Library, in Brent, we were the only way kids could access books. Now, I read to my 17 month old granddaughter, who already has a pile of books, and can point to the picture of the word already. Reading opens door…all sorts of doors… We would not deny our kids food or clothing? How can we deny them the right of reding?

    1. Thank you Carol and, yes, I feel the same about libraries. They’re such an underused resource, I fear, that’s part of the trouble, but it’s not helping to have them closing down.

  2. I absolutely agree. My parents took me to the library every week, and we all came away with armloads. I still do it. And guess what, I became a writer/editor and read over 70 books a year. It’s still my favorite thing to do, and I take an actual book with me when I go to dr. appts and other places where I might have to wait and–glory–get a chance to open those pages. My husband and I read to our daughter before she could even understand English, and your point about empathy struck me. She now works with adults with disabilities. My sister-in-law still likes to read out loud, and we take turns doing it when we visit her. How much richer are our lives because of reading! And who knows how much less we struggled in school because of it. To me, a library is a building full of happy possibilities.

    1. What a wonderful story Cindy!
      It’s so nice to learn of instances where reading has enriched other people’s lives.
      I’m a member of a book group in my local village which is great because I think you can get stuck in a genre if you;’re not careful and end up reading similar things all the time, whereas by taking it in turns to choose different books, my reading now varies enormously. I would also think that my writing is all the better for it too!
      Thank you for your ocntribution 🙂

  3. I have one son who is now 15. My wife is a published author and I used to own around 1,000 books, though I have been working hard to get the piles down to manageable levels. There are a number of places where books are on display in our house. I have been buying my son books down the year on any topic he has been remotely interested in and willing to get him non-fiction when he felt that fiction might be more for girls. I am still offering to buy any book of a movie or series that he has an interest in. Yet, despite him being able to quote chunks of the Harry Potter movies, the first book was never completed, the others discarded. Despite him, watching all The Hunger Games movies, the book was not read.

    I challenged him on this and he said ‘reading is old fashioned; it’s not something people do these days’. Clearly his parents are no longer ‘people’. I said he could get e-books if it was the technology he needed to get him into books, but he saw no point; only the ‘old’ apparently read. I know parents are supposed to begin to see a void develop between them and their children as they age, but in his case, it is more than personal, it is cultural too.

    What seems to have value to children these days is not a good story, though my son will concede that some movies have better stories than others and, in fact, that many of the best are based on books, ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ being a prime example. Yet, if it lacks the ‘bells and whistles’, even of a repetitive gif, let alone a YouTube clip then it counts for nothing. To him suggesting he read is like suggesting that he spin a top or play Nine Men’s Morris, something beneath him, and, anyway, from a past age.

    This proved even to be the case when he read something about Barack Obama, someone he had admired from an early age. One day he abruptly told me that ‘he did nothing good’ in his Presidency. I asked him why he now thought this as it was so sharply different from his previous view, and he said, ‘it was on Fox News’ as the only needed answer. It is not a channel we get on TV in the UK, it was simply peddled to him online.

    Seeing university undergraduates behaving in the same way, focused more on how something looks rather than whether it is factually correct; drinking in memes and stories and accessing websites as if they are all equal, I have despaired for my son. We cannot afford for him to go to university, but if we could, then I know he would simply have his opinions and, indeed much of his knowledge, shaped by what is most trending, rather than actually bringing personal judgement to bear. I feel that not only has he had the empathy mentioned here dented, but that any critical faculty has been eliminated so will allow him to not even be seduced, but instead, simply instructed, into callousness by whichever is the loudest voice online.

    1. Hi Keir,
      Nice to see you here again 🙂
      I sympathise about your son, and I fear he’s not alone. An entire generation of kids are growing up to expect everything they want at their fingertips, which is a worrying trend indeed. How on earth will they learn what the real world is like?
      However don’t despair too much. I have a number of friends (mostly male, as it happens) who took up the pleasure of reading books later in life having shunned it during childhood.
      Best wishes, Liz

  4. I can’t imagine my life without books as a child or now. If you told my Mum we were bored, her answer always was: “Get a book and read “. It has served me well to this day.
    As a teacher to dyslexic children, my best compliment came from a 12-year-old who wrote to school during his summer holidays because he was so happy about the fact that, for the first time in his life, he had read a book all by himself. You can’t imagine how proud I was!

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