The best books for cultivating empathy and humor in a cruel world

Truant Memphis Author Of Littlethumb Sneezed
By Truant Memphis

Who am I?

I hesitate to call myself an expert on empathy and humor, but I am absolutely passionate about both. As a performer in my earlier years, I find no greater joy than making people laugh. As a human who was lucky enough to be raised with love, I find no greater purpose, no greater hope for our survival as a species than caring for one another. The science and technology that may save humanity from extinction should spring forth from the same place as the love and humor that may save our souls (presuming we have them 😊): Compassion for one another. When you find these lessons in books, they stick.


I wrote...

Littlethumb Sneezed

By Truant Memphis,

Book cover of Littlethumb Sneezed

What is my book about?

At its heart a tragic comedy, Littlethumb Sneezed follows the extraordinary life of prolific artist and philanthropist, Littlethumb Brooks. From the discovery of his artistic gifts as a child to his reemergence as an adult, this story presents a different type of hero. A hero driven by empathy, humor, and artistic endeavors, buoyed by the personal strength to survive all of the sadness this world can muster.

While taking a satirical ride through popular culture, Littlethumb Sneezed examines its characters at their most basic human levels. These are people we all know, put on display with satire and love, as the tale culminates in great tragedy and an extraordinary act of forgiveness.

The books I picked & why

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A Man Without a Country

By Kurt Vonnegut,

Book cover of A Man Without a Country

Why this book?

The only non-fiction book on my list, though you could put any of Vonnegut’s fiction titles on a list about cultivating empathy in humor. However, this late-career non-fiction work from one of, if not my favorite author(s), had a dramatic impact on me. To read the thoughts, often so close to despair, of a man so skilled at telling jokes… Vonnegut directly expressed so many human insights and emotions in this book that I felt a kinship to him on another level, only heightening my appreciation for his works of fiction.


Jitterbug Perfume

By Tom Robbins,

Book cover of Jitterbug Perfume

Why this book?

A sweeping tale of profound, everlasting love. Like Vonnegut, I could pretty much put any of Tom Robbins’ books on this list. His ability to effortlessly balance difficult subjects with a wink and a smile while presenting deft character examinations and convoluted plotlines fascinates me. One moment he will be discussing the history of man and our atrocities only to eventually explain how a stone tossed 500 years ago informed the creation of the taco. While some may find Robbins sardonic at times, I’ve always perceived a level of warmth for his characters and in his commentary that draws me even further into his world.


Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal

By Christopher Moore,

Book cover of Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal

Why this book?

Brilliant, playful, and often poignant, Moore presented his take on the life of Jesus with genuine care. While I’m certain there are folks who might find any level of fictionalizing Jesus’ life offensive, I was thoroughly impressed with Moore’s ability to explore the subject with a painstaking level of respect…and great fun! His Afterword in the edition I own maps out in detail some of the efforts he made to empathize with his characters and the times they lived in.


The Last Policeman

By Ben H. Winters,

Book cover of The Last Policeman

Why this book?

If you’re already familiar with it, this novel may seem like a weird fit amongst the rest of the books on this list. Yet, though it is a sci-fi mystery with a strong sense of chaotic inevitability felt throughout, the protagonist’s self-deprecating humor in the midst of the world’s collapse compels me to include The Last Policeman. Winters’ psychological exploration of people who believe themselves to be doomed is explored in a well-rounded fashion, highlighted by a policeman who perpetually questions the point of his own efforts. A fun, compelling sci-fi mystery with a deeply compassionate hero.


Forrest Gump

By Winston Groom,

Book cover of Forrest Gump

Why this book?

I rarely laugh out loud when reading a book. I chuckle inside my head all the time, but reading is such a place of internal combustion and isolation, I rarely articulate my response to the live world. Forrest Gump made me laugh out loud on numerous occasions. This is not Tom Hank’s Forrest, and although I believe the film’s characterization showed levels of complexity and growth throughout the movie, Groom’s Forrest is a much more dynamic character. Yes, Forrest appears simple yet surprisingly wise at times, but he’s also a jerk sometimes, and maybe a little bit of a bully when necessary. At the end of the day he’s a fully rounded human, flawed but lovable.


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