Normally, conversations or arguments that dissolve into "Well, it's just a matter semantics" are a tad lame, aren't they? It's like throwing up your hands and agreeing to disagree. But without getting into a whole thing here about prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar ('cause David Foster Wallace already took care of that for us), in my humble opinion, words DO have specific meanings and misusing a word can't be argued away with "Well, that's what I mean." And that brings me to my point: Especially in book reviews, precise language is critically important. So, today, on National Grammar Day, I wanted to spend a post to comment on something of a book review word-choice-related, um, issue I've noticed a lot lately.
Here's the deal: Many reviewers seem to use the words "empathy" and "sympathy" interchangeably when trying to explain their feelings for or reactions to literary characters. The difference is subtle, I'll grant you, but they're certainly not the same. Let's take a look...
Empathy suggests a very deep level of understanding of and identification with a character, a sense of vicariousness. To empathize is to know what it's like to walk a mile in a character's shoes, to see the world through his/her eyes. For a novelist, creating empathetic characters is really, really hard, and novelists who do so successfully are truly masters of the craft. When reading Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You, about a mid-30s dude colliding with life, I kept think "YES! He nailed it. I know exactly what that's like, why he's thinking like that, and why he just did that!" That's empathy, in my view.
The Book Thief, I sympathized the holy bejesus out of Liesl, the teenage girl stuck in Nazi Germany. But, I actually have NO idea what it's like to dodge air raids and eat nothing but weak pea soup at every meal. So I can't say that I could empathize with her.
To illustrate the difference another way, I'd argue that you can sympathize with a cat, dog or duck billed platypus (normal, non-talking ones), but unless you're a Buddhist (reincarnation), it would be all but impossible to empathize with an animal.
What's your take on this "matter of semantics"? Am I right about the difference between empathy and sympathy, in your view? Have you notice these words used synonymously as well? Does it bug you?
(By the way, I just went 'agoogling, and discovered that I am about the 4,563rd person to write on this topic. Perhaps, in the interest of originality, I should've looked into that before spending time crafting a post. D'oh!)