Why It Pays to Read

March 7, 2017


My students and I were reading Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale at the same time millions of women in the U.S. and elsewhere marched for their rights. The solidarity among the 12,000 people in Oklahoma City with whom I marched was, well, indescribable.


For days after the march, thousands of signs were shared via pictures on Facebook. Reading the messages on those signs – angry, funny, moving, blunt – I was reminded of a piece by the National Endowment for the Arts, entitled “Why It Pays to Read”:


As we read about the behaviors and thoughts of characters, we come to understand and appreciate their experiences and inner lives, even if they are markedly different from our own.


During our discussions of Atwood’s novel, many questions emerged, but the most immediate one was, “Could this happen now?” As we explored this question, we started thinking about how Offred’s experiences mirror and do not mirror our own. We built empathy for a character potentially unlike ourselves and came to understand that in order to make Atwood fiction again, we would have to empathize will all women, not just those who are like us.

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