Empathy Day

10 June marks Empathy Day, a day that aims to raise awareness among society and young people about empathy and how to put it into practice.

Research carried out by Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab demonstrated that people who often read fiction have better social cognition, meaning they’re more skilled at working out what other people are thinking and feeling. Shifting focus onto other people’s feelings and perspectives encourages a person to become more empathetic, as they’re able to put themselves in other people’s shoes.

EmpathyLab, the organisers of Empathy Day, suggest doing this through three practices: Read, Connect and Act. Read empathy-rich books to deepen your understanding of other people and take part in use of the #ReadForEmpathy social media campaign; connect by going on an Empathy Walk to connect to the reality of your local community; and act, by using increased understanding to make changes and making an empathy resolution.

We’ve created a collection of titles for children and teens that encourage empathy, based on the suggestions put together by Empathy Lab. These titles include: A Hurricane in My Head by Matt Abbott which tackles the themes of friendship, bullying, technology, and the life of a modern teenager; A Kind of Spark by Elle McNicoll encourages understanding of others – through the eye of autistic protagonist, Addie; When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson, a book that explores life as a refugee for 8–12-year-olds, with a heart-wrenching but happy ending.

All these books can be found in our libraries and through our BorrowBox, our eBook and eAudiobook provider.

Books and Me: on my shelves

Lucy Pick, commercial manager at Hampshire Libraries, talks about absorbing reading, perfect stories, and the pleasures of stumbling on a book by chance.

Where’s your favourite place to read?

When I used to be able to commute, I loved reading on the bus. You can lose yourself in a good book: with a book in your bag, you’re never going to be stuck.

I struggled to read during Covid when there was too much other stuff going on. I think the ability to properly absorb yourself in something else can get lost when you’re going through a period of stress. I need to set aside time to break the back of a book, to absorb myself into it and then, when I’m properly immersed, I’ll be reading while the kettle’s boiling, grabbing every possible moment.

How do you read?

I read one book at a time, but I can listen to an audiobook and read a book at the same time because my mind sees that as two different things. I’ve been listening to the Helena Kennedy audiobook Misjustice from BorrowBox, which was brilliant. I didn’t finish it by the time it was due back, but that was fine because, like radio where you might listen to half of a programme in the car and then get where you’re going, I didn’t need to listen to the whole thing to enjoy it.

I’ll happily turn down page corners to mark my place but only if it’s my own book. I’m not precious about the books I own: they’ve been in my bag, they’ve been on journeys, they’re old and tattered and that’s fine with me; that’s their history. With library books, I can’t do that, so I use a collection of vintage leather bookmarks I’ve picked up at charity shops.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just finished reading Handiwork by Sarah Baume which was remarkable. It’s a very short book so I had to ration myself. It’s very pared down in the sense that she almost writes like a poet, but she manages to steer away from being pretentious: it’s thoughtful and measured and wise. She’s a visual artist and an author and it’s very matter-of-fact and grounded, but then, suddenly, she’ll just swirl the world around, and capture something she sees in a way that takes your breath away.

Another book which totally absorbed me recently was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. The quality of the writing grabbed me straight away; it’s an epic story told with amazing language and emotion and I can see why it got all the accolades it did. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started and I prefer it that way. I remember the first time I read Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger, which I borrowed from Chandler’s Ford Library as a teenager; I enjoyed not having any blurb, going into it cold and just seeing what happens.

My next one to read is Claire Fuller’s latest novel Unsettled Ground, for which she’s just been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. She’s taken part in events for us at Hampshire Libraries, and the audience just loved her; she’s just so personable and knowledgeable.

Reading patterns

An early love of film noir got me into books by writers like Raymond Chandler, and through that to crime writing in general. For me it’s always about the narrative, I don’t like gruesome stories. I like Ann Cleeves, I’ve read quite a few of her titles, and I’ve read a lot of Ian Rankin, as well as Peter Robinson and Graham Hurley. But I haven’t read much crime recently because I became a bit saturated with it – there’s a danger with this genre that too many can become monotonous. Although I’ve just downloaded a Peter James audiobook from BorrowBox which I’ve been listening to in the garden.

I’m always drawn to a coming-of-age story, or what I’ve recently learned to call a “Bildungsroman” story. There are so many brilliant books of this kind: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, Sophie Dahl’s Playing with the Grown-Ups. Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud is one I recommend when people ask for a book with a strong sense of location: it’s hugely evocative of Moroccan smells and sounds.

First love, best loves

As a child, I was an avid Chandler’s Ford Library user, reading huge amounts of Graham Greene and every Virago book they had on the shelf. I still use the Virago publishers’ name as a token of a good quality book.

For me, Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan is the perfect book. It’s understated, short and has moments when it feels like you’re pulling up a blind to reveal fragments of someone else’s life and then the blind comes down and you walk away again, which I love in a story. My strong feelings for it are probably partly down to stumbling on it by chance: I love a book you stumble upon.

Lynne Reid Banks is another brilliant writer who is not considered to be fashionable now, but when I was young, I lived and breathed the trilogy of The L Shaped Room, The Backward Shadow and Two is Lonely. The stories and the people she created were like family to me. I also loved brutal kitchen-sink fiction like Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving and John Braine’s Room at the Top.

I deliberately didn’t study literature beyond the age of 16 because I loved stories for what they were and found analysing them could ruin them for me. So the notion of magical realism in Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting meant nothing to me. I just loved his books for being beautifully written with wonderful descriptions of people and connections; like several authors I love, such as Toni Morrison and Hanif Kureshi, I haven’t read Kundera for a while.
When I feel I’ve experienced perfection in an author’s books, I sometimes don’t want to read any more as I don’t want to taint my experience.

Moonraker by Ian Fleming might seem like an odd choice but I love vintage and I love a charity shop, and the James Bond book jackets are just brilliant. They’re great combination of a good read and nostalgia, and while they’re no longer books you could consider “of our time”, it doesn’t mean I can’t read and enjoy them as a good story.

My enthusiasm for the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas comes from working with people in book shops who knew more about poetry than I did. There are certain things you can capture within a poem that you can’t capture within a novel – in the same way that you can convey feelings and ideas in abstract painting that you can’t in a figurative work. He’s a bit like Thomas Hardy in that he’s very British, very rooted within the landscape.

Possibly out of contrariness, I’ve picked The Pearl by John Steinbeck, rather than opting for his better-known novella Of Mice and Men. The Pearl is another perfect little story and one I’ve recommended a few times for someone who might be intimidated by tackling more widely known books.

Overlooked delights

In my opinion Simone de Beauvoir hasn’t got as much credit as she deserves for novels like She Came to Stay. It’s semi-autobiographical and touches on bigger philosophical questions that she and Jean-Paul Sartre both tackle, but wrapped up within day-to-day life. She captures the raw emotion of relationships and is sentimental without being a sentimentalist. I don’t think I’ve read beyond the first two pages of The Second Sex. I’m contrary: if someone tells me to watch a film, I won’t do it and it’s the same with books, I like to seek out my own discoveries.

As commercial manager of Hampshire Libraries, Lucy selects and looks after the books in our collection as well as overseeing our online catalogue. She combines this with her work as an abstract artist. Lucy was talking to Kate Price McCarthy

Award-winning books

It’s May and we are well into the Book Awards calendar. We’ve already had the shortlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, The Man Booker International Prize and the Wolfson History Prize, amongst many others.

This month we will see the Orwell Prizes shortlist for political fiction and non-fiction, the Jhalak Prize winner, the winners of the Nibbies (the British Book Awards for the trade to identify the best books, bookshops and publishers) and The Daggers shortlist for the best new crime writing.

Jhalak Prize shortlisted books

There are prizes for practically every category of writing from big players like the Man Booker and Costa to the very particular such as the age specific The Paul Torday Prize (authors must be 60+) or the International Dylan Thomas Prize (39 or under), the place specific Portico Prize for books that honour the strong literary heritage of the North of England or the Ondaatje Prize that best evokes the spirit of a place generally. There are even prizes for making a point such as Staunch – the international award for thrillers in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.

2021 Longlist for the International Dylan Thomas Prize.

Are there too many prizes – do we really need them all or do the sheer number devalue the books they are set up to acknowledge?

Well, consider this. Just to get published, a book must jump through a number of hoops, not to mention getting the attention of a publisher in the first place. The publisher then has to take a risk, given the production and publicity costs set against the uncertainty of sales. The book then joins the 170,000 or so books published every year in the UK – factor in all books published in English each year and that figure jumps considerably. How will the author’s words and the publisher’s investment get recognised?

And from the reader’s side, time is finite – how to discover that sometimes elusive next great read, or even where to start looking if you want to try something different.

Book reviews, word of mouth and websites all help but what is needed is a kind of quality assurance process that covers a much wider range of genres and tastes. This is where book awards step in providing something for everyone. Awards create a media buzz encouraging conversations about books and often advocating those writers who didn’t make the cut. And lucky the author who goes on to win several awards such as Maggie O’Farrell with Hamnet – winner of both Waterstones Book of the Year and Women’s Prize for Fiction and currently shortlisted for the British Book Awards Fiction Book of the Year 2021.

More awards also mean more diversity, something that is badly needed in publishing. The heavyweight Booker now has an International version for novels in translation. The Women’s Prize for Fiction was set up to address the under-representation of women’s writing in major prizes and is now one of the most prestigious awards in the literary world.

The Jhalak Prize confronts lack of representation and seeks to identify and celebrate the finest works across all categories by British writers of colour. Now in its fifth year, it has gone from strength-to-strength and this year includes a prize for children’s and young adult books as well.

Likewise, the Polari Prize was founded 11 years ago to celebrate emerging and established UK LGBTQ+ writers and promote works that explores the LGBTQ+ experience.

Awards are also beneficial for small independent publishers enabling them to punch above their weight. Without the Wainwright Prize for UK Nature Writing, the wonderful Diary of a Young Naturalist by 16-year-old Dara McNulty and its publisher Little Toller, may never have got the recognition they deserved.

So whether you’re in the mood for a intellectual workout, crave escapism, or seek to engage with the issues of the day (or yesterday), or appreciate books for their aesthetics, there is a book award out there that will help.

“Writers need validation” says the author Alys Conran, herself a winner of the Wales Book of the Year Award. Publishers need sales. And we all need great writing, whatever our tastes and interests.

Look out for our BorrowBox and web promotions which often include writers nominated for awards alongside our regular features such as Author of the Month.

Mental Health Awareness Week

Hosted by the Mental Health Foundation, Mental Health Awareness Week begins on 10 May and aims to promote good mental health for all. To support mental health Hampshire Libraries offer a variety of courses through the Learning in Libraries initiative, courses include wellbeing and fitness, digital skills, and many more.

This year’s theme for National Mental Health Awareness is nature; something millions of us turned to during the long months of a national lockdown. Nature has been proven to have powerful benefits for our mental health, research shows that going for walks outside was one of our top coping strategies during the pandemic and 45% of us reported being in green spaces had been vital for our mental health.

Hampshire Countryside Service’s blog, Looking After Nature, is a great source to use to get reacquainted with nature and finding comfort in the great outdoors – whether it be best walking spots in Hampshire, birdwatching or finding a new way to experience and enjoy the countryside this year.
We believe in the healing power of nature and the benefits that being outside in nature brings. Last year, we introduced our Naturally Mindful collection to encourage people to find out more about the many ways nature can be experienced for a positive mental health boost. The collection of non-fiction titles is available to download in eBook and audiobook format from our provider BorrowBox – look for our digital shelf ‘Nature and Mental Health’ or explore our catalogue online.

This year, we’ve received a collection of more than 80 books from The Reading Agency’s Reading Well initiative, aimed at supporting mental health of children, young adults and adults through the power of reading. The full collection is available to loan in each of our 40 libraries or downloadable as eBooks for free on BorrowBox.

Caryl Phillips

Caryl Phillips, born in St Kitts and brought up in Leeds, has written for television, radio, theatre, and cinema and is the author of three works of non-fiction and eight novels, including Crossing the River which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1993.

A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and an Honorary Fellow of Queens College, Oxford University, among his literary prizes and awards Phillips has won the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Fellowship, and Britain’s oldest literary award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. His novel A Distant Shore won the 2004 Commonwealth Writers Prize, and Dancing in the Dark won the 2006 Pen/Beyond the Margins Prize.

Much of his writing – both fiction and non-fiction – has focused on the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade and its consequences for the African Diaspora. The Final Passage (1985), his first novel – which won the Malcolm X Prize for Literature, is the story of a young woman who leaves her home in the Caribbean to start a new life with her husband and baby in 1950s London. His second novel, A State of Independence (1986), is set in the Caribbean and explores the islands’ growing dependency on America. Higher Ground (1989) consists of three narratives linking the lives of a West African slave, a member of the Black Panther movement and a Polish immigrant living in post-war Britain.

Cambridge (1991), his fourth novel, centres on the experiences of a young Englishwoman visiting her father’s plantation in the Caribbean and won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. Crossing the River (1993) which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (for fiction) and was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize, follows the separate stories of two brothers and a sister from slavery to a dislocated emancipation. The Nature of Blood (1997) draws parallels between the persecution of Jews in Europe and the black victims of slavery. His most recent novels are In the Falling Snow (2009), The Lost Child (2011), and A View of the Empire at Sunset (2018).

Caryl Phillips’ non-fiction includes a travel narrative, The European Tribe (1987), winner of the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize, and The Atlantic Sound (2000), an account of a journey he made to three hubs of the Atlantic slave trade: Liverpool, Elmina on the west coast of Ghana, and Charleston in the American South. In Colour Me English (2011), Phillips explores the notion of identity, how is constructed, thrust upon us, how we can change it.

Phillips is a writer who often appears most at home when he is away, journeying between places. Accordingly, he has remarked that he wishes to be ‘buried’ in the Atlantic, at the crossroads between Britain, Africa and the Caribbean.

Books by Caryl Phillips are available to reserve by clicking the book titles below or to loan as eBooks, eAudio on the BorrowBox app.