So I'm a little bit like a back-up sprinkler system: cry within my line of sight, and I'll cry, too. Yes, it's embarrassing, but on the other hand, empathy is the backbone of civilization, so I don't really mind having a little more than my share.
And yet, like most of us, I have empathetic lapses: dry, barren places inside me where nothing finds purchase and imagination won't sprout. If empathy is a backbone, imaginative flights are its vertebrae: to empathize, you must imagine yourself out of your own skin and into someone else's. You must live, temporarily, two lives at once.
Over time, I've managed to drum up empathy for a number of folks who initially gave me trouble: cheating boyfriends, teenage mothers, zealots. But still, there remain people for whom, even when I try to squeeze out empathy as if it were a kidney stone, I feel nothing. Mass murderers. People who have significant credit card debt. George and Laura Bush.
I mean, seriously, why the heck would you spend money you didn't have? Unless your liver failed while you were vacationing in a totalitarian dictatorship with no functioning health care system and you needed to buy another liver on the black market, why on earth would you think something was worth paying 22% APR? Have you no self-control, people? Did some kind of alien parasite gobble your brain? Wait, save, AND THEN BUY THAT GIANT FLAT-SCREEN SOUL-SUCKER.
See what I mean? No empathy.
Fortunately, there are books. It's easy to forget in these days when a book is supposed to be either an entertaining diversion or Art with a capital A, but another thing a book can be is a gardener. A good book cultivates empathy. A great book cultivates empathy in those parched, scorched reaches of yourself you thought were forever sere.
American Wife, Curtis Sittenfeld's third novel and my sixth pick for My Year of Reading Dangerously, is a great book. Not because of any particular felicity of prose or superiority of structure, but because, by the time I reached the last the of hundreds and hundreds of pages of this pseudo-auto-biography of a (lightly) fictionalized American First Lady, I was a) crying and b) almost able to comprehend how a woman could first sleep with and then marry G. Dubya.
This is, self-evidently, a miracle. American Wife is a readable, thoughtful, occasionally off-putting perpetrator of miracles. And how many books can claim that?