Like most people, recreational reading gets away from me–mainly because I fail to pursue it. I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t read a book for fun all calendar year, that is, until I read The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison.
The Empathy Exams is a collection of non-fiction essays tackling various questions surrounding empathy and pain: How do we show others we care? Is our desire for empathy inherently selfish? Can we convey genuine empathy and, if so, what does that mean?
While the core motif (empathy) remains the same throughout, each essay approaches it from different angles in terms of plot: from medical actors to ultra-marathon runners, from illness to incarceration, from literary sentimentality to reality television.
As a winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and a New York Times Best Seller, it feels like a moot point to tell you that this book is good. So my succinct fangirling is to say: if you’re reading this post, stop reading this and go read The Empathy Exams.
And now for the less succinct: to me, the brilliance of The Empathy Exams resides in its quality of writing, its honestly, and its relevance to humanity.
The first essay, also called The Empathy Exams, had me hooked on Jamison’s writing style. This essay about her experience as a medical actor was the perfect segue into the book and made me, as the reader, intrigued by the topic of empathy. She does an excellent job weaving in humor without distracting from the seriousness of her own introspection:
“Some med students get nervous during our encounters. It’s like an awkward date, except half of them are wearing platinum wedding bands. I want to tell them I’m more than just an unmarried woman faking seizures for pocket money. I do things! […] We make small talk about the rural Iowa farm town I’m supposed to be from. We each understand the other is inventing this small talk, and we agree to respond to each other’s inventions as genuine exposures of personality. We’re holding the friction between us like a jump rope”(4).
In this essay about her being a medical actor she writes out a script about herself: “Leslie Jamison / Ob-Gyn / SP Training Materials” complete with a case summary and medical history” (6). This was the first time I fell in love with the way she plays with narrative. Other narrative structures that resonated with me included:
- Morphology of the Hit: Jamison’s encounter with street violence told through the lens of formulaic folktale plot structure.
- In Defense of Saccharine: the history of sugar interspersed within a discussion of sentimentality in literature.
- Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain: Divided into sections: Wound #1, Wound #2, etc, including two interludes.
Lastly, through her use of italicized repetition within the essays and (occasionally) across essays, Jamison makes The Empathy Exams a cohesive whole rather than a collection of the similar.
Jamison isn’t afraid to be vulnerable in this book and, most importantly, she isn’t afraid to tell you she actually is afraid and maybe that’s something she needs to work on. I loved the way this book gave the reader a window into Jamison’s–very relatable–trains of thought/self-reflections. For every question she asked herself, for every uncertain statement she posed, I would ask myself the same:
“When bad things happened to other people, I imagined them happening to me. I didn’t know if this was empathy of theft” (20).
I often think about things like this so it was easy for me to connect (or empathize?) with Jamison’s exploration of empathy throughout the book.
We, as part of humanity, should always be working towards being kind and understanding to one another. Leslie Jamison’s exploration of empathy is the kind of critical thinking all of us should be doing. And as the diversity of essay topics suggests, no matter who you are, empathy is always relevant.
struggling readers and those seeking personal growth
If you struggle with reading for the reasons I do (i.e you have a tendency to not make time for reading, you trouble focussing, and/or you’re a slow reader) I recommend picking up books like The Empathy Exams. Since it’s a collection of essays, it feels a lot more digestible than reading a novel because each essay can stand alone. This is not to discount the fact that these essays were carefully selected and ordered to make larger arguments/convey certain feelings. Just to say that the variation in essay topics and their brevity in length (the longest being around 30 pages) makes this book reader-friendly for struggling readers. I would read an essay, go for a walk or do some chores to process what I read, and then move to the next essay. Lastly, if you’re a struggling reader the best thing you can do is find a book you’re obsessed with; and I have to say, Jamison left me craving the next essay every single time.
I walked away from this book feeling like a better person. Not because it made me more moral or sensitive (though it very well may have), but because questioning ourselves and the world around us is how we grow as individuals. This book does just that. And whenever I was feeling down or in a rut, reading this book was a source of comfort for me. There’s something comforting in (trying to) understand others and all of it informs our understanding of ourselves. The Empathy Exams simultaneously reminds us we are not alone and makes us want to act like it.