Books, Empathy, and the Critical Importance of Both

I never thought I would be writing another response to another mass shooting in a country no other than mine.

I remember lying curled up on the couch, my phone clutched tightly in my hand, fingers scrolling through Twitter as news came out of Paris dripped in fear and blood.

Yet, here we are again. It hasn’t even been a full year since the day of that terrible shooting. I had the same phone clutched in my hand when I woke up yesterday morning, sprawled in my bed, windows open to a gray, somber sky. As I scrolled through Twitter, it was that same feeling of fear, of shock, of pain at seeing what had happened.

I write this response not as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, but as a Muslim, as someone who held her breath as she scrolled through Twitter to see if the shooter was, yet again, a so-called “Muslim”.

As I write this, it’s 5:21 AM. I’ve been up for nearly an hour thinking about the tragedy that unfolded yesterday as I ate my morning suhoor. I won’t eat anything for another 16 hours, because it’s the month of Ramadan. A time of peace and reconciliation with ourselves and our thoughts and our beliefs. Ramadan is one of the most beautiful times of the year for the Muslim community, because it is a celebration. A sacred month when everyone is pulled together in mutual joy and sacrifice and a sense of community that can only ever be found in this month.

I can’t help but think about the fact that this terrible crime happened in a month sacred to both Muslims and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Because this month also marks Pride Month, where members of the queer community celebrate themselves and their own identities. There’s celebrations, there’s parades, there’s a wholesome sense of identity for members of a community that have suffered for their beliefs. Perhaps it’s not religious, perhaps the traditions are different, but Pride Month is a beautifully important month to queer people, just as Ramadan is beautifully important to Muslims.

And yet. Here we are. Both communities reeling from a profound loss in the months that are supposed to be the happiest. The safest. The most celebrated.

What happened in Pulse was, above all, a hate crime. Mired in hate for a specific group of people, and executed in the worst of times for both groups of people. From a person who was deluded by his anger, so much so that he felt driven to commit the greatest of crimes, to steal the most precious thing: life.

I can’t help but think: what if this hate hadn’t existed?

There should be a mutual understanding of the importance of other traditions, of traditions that are not your own. Always. You know the reason that I can start to understand the importance of traditions that aren’t my own?

The answer is curiously simple: because I read books.

It’s through books that I have developed an understanding of respect. Respect for culture and traditions that are not mine. Respect for experiences and opinions and thoughts that are not my own. Respect for the legitimacy of the struggles that we all go through.

Books create that.

Books, especially young adult books, give a voice to the struggling perspectives of our world. I can read about a girl who feels terribly, tragically alone even when she’s surrounded by people. I can read a book about a boy who has had to keep his identity a secret, to the point where it maybe, probably killed him. I can read about a girl and a boy who have forced their sadness inside of them, who find hope in different things, who have radically different outcomes. Books give me the opportunity to read from completely different perspectives, and then give me understanding of where these perspectives come from. They may not be right, they may not be pretty, they may be so, so messy. But that’s real life, and reading these books gives me the understanding I need to puzzle these perspectives out. To find understanding, and then use that understanding to create a conversation, with myself or with others.

And that’s fundamentally important.

Empathy is the missing link when it comes to these tragedies, especially a hate crime like this. Would this shooting have happened if the shooter had read a book about an oreo-loving guy who liked another guy? Could understanding really be that powerful?

I think empathy is that powerful. I can say it now, and say it again, and I will: books have the power to change lives, to alter a person’s life, to save people’s lives. The power of being able to understand a perspective that is not yours, a seemingly easy skill to acquire yet a skill most people lack, is a power that can not be denied.

Books have taught me so much. Books have taught me that our actions can come with grave consequences. That sometimes we can feel truly alone, even though we’re not. That sometimes when there appears to be only hopelessness, hope hides in the tiniest of corners, in the tiniest of moments when paths collide once again.

These are all lessons that are critical to understand in this day and age. These are the lessons that the the world are missing. One of the imams I follow, Ustadh Noman Ali Khan, said that these so-called “religious people” start out as angry, misguided people who don’t understand. They feel alone, confused, hurt by the actions of people around them.

You know what can solve that problem? What can create understanding, can soothe their souls, and provide an outlet?


Books about angsty teens, teens that are lost and scared and confused as heck. Books about people who are lost, in their schools, in their homes, in their own identities.

I don’t want to say that books are the solution to everything. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple- otherwise you would find me on the corner of every street, handing out books to each person walking by. There’s a lot that needs to be done to address the problems plaguing the world. But the first step is understanding, is empathy- and that? That can start with reading and listening and talking. That can start with reading a book.

I haven’t always been particularly vocal about my support for other communities. I made a lot of mistakes in my high school years. I didn’t react well when one of my dear friends came out to me, and it’s a mistake I will continue to regret for a long, long time. I can say I didn’t know how to react, but I could have always turned to a book to help me figure things out, even when the adults in my life pushed my feelings and confusion down into a corner. I’m so relieved one of my friends decided to come out yesterday (they are incredibly brave), but I’m still not where I should be. And that’s not right. So I’m going to read, to understand the perspective of different people, and especially of the LGBTQIA+ community. I’m still not sure what I believe or what I’m supposed to do or even where I’m supposed to be in the world, but I do know that learning is the first step, and that I can not, will not ever succumb to the hate and misconceptions swirling around the queer community. That would make me as hateful as the world portrays Muslims to be, and I will never, ever be hateful. I will never succumb to the stereotypes.

And books will help me learn.

As I watch the sky lighten, bit by bit, all I really want to do is grab some headphones, blast some Halsey music, and just stop thinking about all of this. Be numb to it all. But there’s danger in that, because I wouldn’t be feeling. And if it’s one thing this crime has taught me, it’s that not-feeling and not-understanding are perhaps the most dangerous things of all. So I’ll let the feelings wash over me. You should too. It’s hard, and painful, but I urge you to feel. Because otherwise we’ll loose our proclivity to action, and if we stop fighting the hate, then we’ve all truly lost.

Besides, we are the underdogs. If anything, after reading hundreds upon hundreds of books, I’ve found that there is always hope for the underdogs.

Books are particularly beautiful because we lose ourselves in them. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of sinking into a gorgeous book, of getting lost in the pages that hold wonder and wisdom and laughter and sadness and so much more. It’s scary, getting lost. But there’s a particular beauty that only comes with that, because even those we lose ourselves in books, we find ourselves there too.

If you’re still trying to cope with what happened in Pulse, let me give you a suggestion: read a book. Feel. Let all the emotions out. Find someone to talk to. Heck, talk to me. Whatever you need. But we have to keep fighting, have to keep faith in the potential of underdogs. That’s one kind of faith I’m willing to let guide me, and I hope you are too. 

To the lost souls from the Pulse shooting: may you find your way. Rest in peace, loves. 



  1. Aneeqah, this is such a beautiful post. I 100% agree with you that books are one of the best ways to practice empathy and learn to understand other people – how else can you get to know the innermost thoughts of a different person whenever you want? I don’t have much to add, since you completely hit the nail on the head, but I just wanted to let you know how much I love *everything* you write, especially this. <3
    Emily @ Forever Literary recently posted…Growing Up, Expecting Change, and Looking For the Details: Thoughts From GraduationMy Profile

  2. There’s so much I could say about this topic, but I choose not to. Because this whole thing invokes such enormous amounts of rage and sadness in me and I can’t handle that properly. But you said it all. And you said it beautifully.
    Things like this should never happen.

    To end on a more happy note, go you for the Simon VS reference!
    Bee @ Quite the Novel Idea recently posted…{Bee’s Writing Cloud} Beautiful People ~ Childhood EditionMy Profile

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