The Empathy Exams: On reading (essays)

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My bff S. and I have a long standing joke that we have an “ET” connection. Having never seen the movie (I know, I know) I’m not entirely sure what the alien does to form the connection, but the way we understand it there are moments that we just ‘get’ one another, or ‘get’ what the other is going through.

The idea that we can ‘get’ one another, or the idea that there are – and should be – limits to what we imagine we can ‘get’ about one another, or the idea that we can only ever reach towards this kind of understanding, are ideas explored in Leslie Jamison’s excellent collection of essays, The Empathy Exams. [I admit I don’t read many essay collections – though with M.’s prodding and with this experience I suspect I’ll seek out more – and so my commentary will be a welcome counterpoint to the last post on historical fiction.]

One of the threads running through the collection is that of the writer-as-observor or witness, and the parallel role we all take in our connections and interactions with one another. That much as we might like to imagine that we can ‘get’ the other and those we love, we are – in the end – witnesses to and for one another. That we could be witness for one another is one of the ideas I found most engaging in the text. Until reading I had sort of thought of empathy as somehow selfish: let me share my pain or joy with you – selfish for both giver and receiver. But what the opening essay opens up is the notion that in asking questions, in witnessing and listening, we can reveal parts or feelings of the other to herself that she didn’t know she had or felt. The collection weaves this idea – and many others on the theme – through a range of places and people in ways that brought fresh perspective and nuance. Each felt focused on a particular story, but threaded to the wider theme and question. With the exception of the last essay, which I found a bit wearing, each gave, shared, asked and offered.

If my idea of reading has been this sort of sharing of experience, broadening of perspective, temporary adoption of identity and history that changes and shapes the reader, what Jamison’s collection did for me was to nuance my idea that reading is just about expanding and deepening my capacity for care and might equally be a call for conversation – with the author and others – about what and how the reading (re: the experience, the sharing) has changed or is changing.

There’s good evidence – if we believe Science – that reading literary fiction strengthens the readers ability to empathize. Even more so than popular fiction or non-fiction. And so while I might want to take this evidence as vindication of my reading habits, I do think reading this essay collection has affirmed that I need to read more non-fiction for the lens it brings and the questions it explicitly asks.

And so S., I’ve sent you a copy of The Empathy Exams as your late Christmas present. And as a tether across the world to know just how close we are.

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Filed under Book Club, Non-fiction, Prize Winner

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