Books as key to the wide world

‘It is books that are the key to the wide world; if you can’t do anything else, read all that you can.’ Jane Hamilton (novelist)

If you don’t have the opportunity to travel, or if you want to prepare for or add to your travel, then there are a lot of books to read and films to see. With the help of my students, I started making a list of interesting books and films about culture. Which books and films would you recommend? I would love to hear your suggestions!

Reading for empathy

Novels can help develop empathy and reduce prejudice because the reader takes the perspective of the protagonist1. Standing in someone else’s shoes is one of the best ways to reduce prejudice, as research has shown with experiments where people watched a video of someone from a different cultural group who is being discriminated against or where people are asked to write an essay about one day in the life of that person. They are then explicitly told to see it from the other’s point of view. With novels, the reader spontaneously puts themselves in the shoes of the ‘other’ and imagines their thoughts and feelings. This leads to learning about the other culture, and feelings of empathy. This is especially helpful for people who  haven’t had a lot of intercultural contact yet, and who might feel anxious when talking to people from other cultural backgrounds.

“… the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that.” (Barack Obama)

Unexpected finds

Many of the books on the list are about a specific country, and can give a good idea of that particular culture. And sometimes books can touch on cultural differences without being about a specific country. I realized only years after I started studying intercultural communication that two of my favourite books when growing up had cultural differences at their heart.

The first one is the Clan of the Cavebear, where Ayla grows up with the Clan (Neanderthals) and then has to adjust to a new culture when she meets the ‘Others’. The second one is a trilogy by the famous Dutch children’s book author Thea Beckmann, which is about the confrontation between a society where women are the leaders and men are not trusted to have power, and one where men have all the power. The story in both books is actually a lot about the differences between these ways of living, and how to deal with that, and I enjoyed them a lot.

Let me know what book or film you have found insightful, and I’ll be glad to add them to my list!


1 Johnson, D. R., Jasper, D. M., Griffin, S., & Huffman, B. L. (2013). Reading narrative fiction reduces Arab-Muslim prejudice and offers a safe haven from intergroup anxiety. Social Cognition, 31(5), 578-598.