Against Empathy [A Review]

Against Empathy, by Paul Bloom

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The title caught my eye when I was combing the bookstore for something interesting to read over the holidays.

The first thought that came to my mind was in the form of a big question mark. In terms of book-shopping, that’s a good thing for the author, because that means I might be curious enough to buy the book, and I did, hoping I would learn something new from it.

Right from the beginning, Bloom defines empathy as simply feeling what another person is feeling. Period. It has nothing to do with kindness nor morality. So when I see someone else in pain and I feel empathy for that person, I’m simply feeling his pain, but that does not necessarily motivate me to help him. 

While Bloom writes clearly, it took me a while to digest his arguments, because they are against the common belief and assumptions about empathy being a good thing. In fact, I had to constantly remind myself about how Bloom defines empathy. I wouldn’t say I have totally internalized the arguments in there, but I think I’ve learnt a few things:

  1. Empathy is actually not good for personal well-being. If I have a strong sense of empathy, it means I tend to always let others’ feelings overwhelm me, and that’s probably not a good thing for my emotional and mental health. 
  2. Empathy in a relationship is not actually a good thing either. This seems to be against our gut instinct – isn’t it good if my spouse can feel what I feel and be more understanding towards me? Well, Bloom says understanding does not necessarily require empathy, only cognitive empathy. Imagine you are feeling upset. Would you prefer an equally upset spouse who can feel your pain, and hence is also incapacitated to do anything, or one who just understands without feeling your pain, and is therefore calm enough to offer you compassion, consolation and help? 
  3. Empathy is a good servant but never a good master. It’s like anger, and Bloom argues empathy is probably also a cause of some of the violence and cruelty we see in the world, especially when people decide to take justice into their own hands.

I think the sub-title covers what the book is about more than the main title. Bloom is urging us to use reason to think through moral issues instead of letting emotions lead us. Rational compassion will make this world a better place, not just empathy.

I don’t think I do Bloom justice by trying to explain some of his arguments in a few sentences here, and especially when the proposition is so controversial. All I can say is that I felt his pain when I tried to put his points into a few words on this page. 😐 

VERDICT: If your curiosity is piqued by the title like I am, or if you are a psychology buff, this should be a fairly well-written and thought-provoking read.


Your Name [A Review]

Your Name, by Makoto Shinkai

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I have no idea how to categorize this book. Contained within this not-too-long story, are stuff like young love, soul-switching, time travel, science fiction, cultural myths and legends, even friendship.

The book was originally written in Japanese, and was written in conjunction with an animation produced by the same creator. I read the version that was translated in Chinese, because I couldn’t find anything in English. Maybe this was better, because most of the time, I find that Japanese novels read better when they have been translated in the Chinese language than in English, and especially if the translation was done by a native Taiwanese. This might have to do with culture and history. (Having said that, I’ve yet to try Murakami in Chinese, and I’m not sure I’m ready to, given my average Chinese proficiency and how Murakami books tend to mess with my brain. Yes, I’m afraid I may not survive such a read.)

Anyway, back to the book. It tells of how two young people – one living in the countryside and one living in Tokyo – switched souls one day and experienced a life-changing event together (I cannot say more without giving away the twist in the second half of the book).

I’ve heard loads about how good the animated production is, but I saw this book at the bookstore before I had had the chance to watch the animation, and I’m really glad, because it left a lot to my imagination to conjure up the beautiful scenery and emotions described in the book. I couldn’t put it down.

I hope the English version comes out soon, so more people can enjoy this beautiful story. The only grouse I have is that the book title sounds kind of funny and corny in English, but it’s actually okay in Chinese.

VERDICT: If you can read Chinese or Japanese, I’d suggest you read the book first before watching the animation. Otherwise, watch the Japanese animation with English subtitles.

Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children Trilogy [A Review]

Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children Trilogy, by Ransom Riggs

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I read the first two books a couple of years back, but when the third book finally came out in 2015, I didn’t get a copy immediately, even though I had enjoyed the first two very much. I think it had to do with the fact that while I could remember the overall story line and most of the characters, I couldn’t remember the details, and I was sure it would affect my experience with the third book. Yet, if I were to reread the first two books first, they would probably not be as interesting because I could remember the key events and the “mysteries” that made me turn the pages were no longer mysteries. I wasn’t sure I would have the stamina to get to the third book. This is exactly why I dislike reading series that have not been completed.

Well, the good thing here is that this series has only three books, and over the new year holidays, I decided I had forgotten enough of the first two books’ details to make them an interesting read again. And so here I am. Finally. And as a result, my thoughts here deal with the series as a whole, instead of just the third book.

First, I think Riggs has created an interesting premise. The peculiar children not only had unique “skills”, but also distinct characters that helped to make them three-dimensional and believable. And through the protagonist’s first-person narration, Riggs has also tried to describe moral dilemmas that added shades of grey to the situations encountered by the children, unlike the clear black and white lines between good and evil sometimes used in young adult fiction.

Second, sometimes I felt like I was reading the Narnia Chronicles and His Dark Materials at the same time, with something extra thrown in. I think it was because the story had heroes (and heroines) who were children, and yet was interesting enough to engage adults too. And I guess the British way the children acted also helped. Plus, the way Riggs was able to subtly use British and American English in the dialogues probably helped to shape how I imagined the characters.

Third, I don’t know how Riggs managed to fit the photos in, but they were all so apt! I would certainly like to know whether he looked for the right photos to fit in with his story, or whether he used the photos as inspiration for his characters and story.

And finally, the ending was hilarious.

VERDICT: This is probably one of the best young adult fantasy series I’ve read so far, besides the classics (think His Dark Materials) that I love. Go try it!