A Longread for the Weekend: Colum McCann and Radical Empathy

Colum McCann wrote a wonderful novel called Let the Great World Spin that came out a few years ago. It tells a number of stories that span across time and two continents, though it’s mostly set in New York City in the 1970s and just after 9/11. The book won the National Book Award.

He has another book coming out, TransAtlantic, so there’s been a bit of press on him, and I read this profile on him in the New York Times Magazine with interest, especially because it was framed around the kind of “radical empathy” he tries to embody in his work, and specifically around a conversation he was having with some students dealing with the Newtown tragedies:

“You have to beat the cynics at their own game,” he said, echoing, consciously or not, George Mitchell on that day in Belfast. There was nothing the least bit preachy in his tone. “I’m not interested in blind optimism, but I’m very interested in optimism that is hard-won, that takes on darkness and then says, ‘This is not enough.’ But it takes time, more time than we can sometimes imagine, to get there. And sometimes we don’t.” He couldn’t fathom what they were going through, he said, but he knew that the struggle against cynicism would be the challenge for them, as it is for anyone, for the rest of their lives.

One of the characters in Let the Great World Spin is a priest who wants to minister to drug addicts and prostitutes in the Bronx ghetto, but is slowly losing his faith–a perspective that I found helped increase my own empathy for the difficulties and trials that people who do that work experience, and helped me pray for them better.

The article’s a great read for your weekend. What books have helped you develop empathy?


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