Book Review: This Book Will Make You Kinder by Henry James Garrett

In the book This Book Will Make You Kinder, the author, Henry James Garrett, seeks to answer two key questions:

Why are we kind?

Why aren’t we kinder?

Garrett, for those of you who are not familiar with him, is primarily known for his illustrations (he calls them cartoons) of animals who comment on subjects like wellness, equality, LGBTQ+ identity, and social justice issues. This book is a sort of sidegig coming out of work Garret had done in empathy and metaethics as part of a PhD in Philosophy which was abandoned due to anxiety challenges. If you want to learn more about Mr. Garrett and view examples of his work, check out his website henryjgarrett.com.

I was drawn to the book because of its subtitle, An Empathy Handbook. I am interested in the subject of empathy and how what appears to be a decrease of it has impacted our work and home life. I wanted to learn more and find ideas on how to apply empathy to everyday life. I was not disappointed.

That said though, the first chapters of the book were a bit of work for me. Garrett’s writing style takes some getting used to. He takes time to make points and the points themselves are often subtle and take effort to truly grasp. However, I found rereading segments and searching for the deeper meaning, while a bit time consuming, worthwhile. Fortunately for me, the book picked up significant steam at about the halfway point. This is where I really started finding gems to help me develop my empathetic abilities and apply them to building a kinder me.

Essentially, the point of the book is that we are endowed with a natural empathetic sense that, if we choose to listen to it, will drive us to do the right things (i.e. act morally) more often than not. However, there are several “mistakes” we make that get in the way. These “mistakes” include false beliefs about others, lack of knowledge about others, lack of imagining our impact on others, and moral justification based on rules or laws.

We can, however, with practice, learn to not make these mistakes.

Garrett’s solution centers around what he deems the most important practice for empathy, listening. “If ignorance is empathy’s poison, listening is the only known antidote.” He then defines what listening is in this context: “… any conscious effort we make to learn about and internalize someone else’s experience.”

From there, he gives us a roadmap for better listening, and, by extension, more connection to our empathetic sense. This roadmap consists of short sections with the following titles:

  • Listen widely and directly; treat people as experts in themselves.
  • Listen to those multiply oppressed.
  • Avoid defensiveness at all costs.
  • Take your time and be present.
  • Get comfortable with being wrong, even drastically wrong.
  • Get to know your privilege.
  • Believe marginalized folk.
  • Create and hold space for people to be heard.
  • Interpret charitably.
  • Concern yourself with content, not tone.
  • Don’t interrogate or demand trauma stories.

He finishes with a call to act on what our sense tells us. “Your empathy, once unbounded, will demand that you act to sacrifice your comfort to avert someone else’s agony.”

Interspersed throughout the book are Garrett’s illustrations to magnify points, draw out a laugh or two, and/or help explain something where words just aren’t enough.

All in all, this is a good read that is well worth the time.

I don’t think anyone would deny that more kindness would be welcome in this world and This Book Will Make You Kinder makes a good argument that it begins with empathy based on listening to understand and feel, and then kind action based on what we learn. Can a book make us kinder? Read it and find out.

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