Leslie Jamison doesn't need your empathy. In the author's essay collection The Empathy Exams , Jamison instead attempts to unmask what empathy really is, how it manifests itself, and how we can feel it. She doesn't need your empathy, but she'd sure love to see it for further examination and discussion.
Jamison's collection covers a wide range of topics, many of which are compellingly rooted in the medical world (the book's first essay, also entitled "The Empathy Exams" fascinatingly details Jamison's work as a medical actor, tasked with imitating a slew of ailments that budding doctors are meant to diagnose), all of which find their roots in the concept of empathy. Jamison effectively examines both fraught and kind of fun issues, from false murder accusations to extreme endurance challenges to the tragedy of various heroines throughout literature, all of which tie neatly back to the idea of empathy.
Still more impressive, Jamison uses her essays to not only expound on a whole mess of interesting topics, but also to tell her own story, one marked by powerful personal revelations and a battle with heart disease that could easily frame up its own narrative. It's a book that feels complete, while also inspiring its readership to want to hear still more from Jamison's unique life and her even more special worldview.
If you’ve already read (and loved) The Empathy Exams, here are nine other books that you should add to your emotion-growing collection right now.
The Unspeakable: And Other Objects of Discussion by Meghan Daum
One of the best things about Jamison's book is that she never tries to sugarcoat her experiences, and she's clearly averse to telling the reader what they want to hear. She never tries to be likable, and the result is a disarmingly honest collection penned by someone who is likable. Daum does something similar in her recent collection, sharing all sorts of stories that make her sound occasionally crazy, often rude, and mostly very human. The "unspeakable" Daum is mining runs the gamut, but The Unspeakable is basically a book about stuff most people dare not say, either out loud or on the page. Daum does it, redefining the idea of an author stripping themselves bare in the process.
This Is Running for Your Life by Michelle Orange
Culture and film critic Orange uses her own essay collection to examine the way the world reacts to — and is influenced by — a never-ending stream of new images. Like Jamison, she weaves together wonky topics with her own personal stories, making them seem indelible, fresh, and very unique.
The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit
A true spiritual twin to Jamison's book, Solnit's 2014 essay collection is similarly preoccupied with the nature and shape of empathy and how it has impacted her own life. Like The Empathy Exams, Solnit's The Faraway Nearby combines personal experience with historical occurrences, particularly fairy tales and folk stories. Solnit's book is also interested in tracking storytelling itself, but its emphasis on empathy makes it a wonderful companion to Jamison's book.
On Looking by Lia Purpura
Purpura gets poetic in her own collection of essays, all of which examine what it is to see — what we see, how we see it, and what the experience means — by way of deeply lovely language and an appropriately discerning eye. Much like Jamison, Purpura has an interest in bodies and diseases, and her essay about an autopsy will eerily recall the titular essay from Jamison's own collection.
Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso
Manguso has faithfully kept a diary for 25 years — can you even imagine? — a sprawling tome that has evolved in importance and style over the intervening decades. Although Manguso's undertaking sounds admirable, it's rooted in a deep fear that she's going to forget to include something, thus somehow losing it along the way. In this essay collection, Manguso grapples with her unwieldy diary and what it means to her.
The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
Marina Keegan was special. The budding writer graduated from Yale magna cum laude in May of 2012, a huge accomplishment made even bigger by a future that was seemingly already bursting at the seams, as Keegan, just 22, already had a job waiting for her at The New Yorker. Five days after graduation, she died in a car crash on Cape Cod. This posthumous collection of her works — including the viral hit from which the collection pulls its title — was published two years later.
100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write: On Umbrellas and Sword Fights, Parades and Dogs, Fire Alarms, Children, and Theater by Sarah Ruhl
Ruhl's essays are, like Jamison's, incredibly wide-ranging. They vary in size and intensity, but each is filled with Ruhl's artistic wit — she's mainly a playwright by trade — and her wry observations about the minutiae of daily life.
Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
The Empathy Exams addresses strange medical stuff in an extremely entertaining fashion, but Jamison's also mines it for deeper insights into the human condition. If that's what fascinated you most about her collection — and, again, her turns as a medical actor are some of the intriguing and interesting stuff I've read this year — Gawande's examination of what medical health means and the true value of "quality of life" should be suitably compelling.
The Gin Closet by Leslie Jamison
Jamison's debut novel should please fans of her essay collection, as it investigates the same issues of intimacy and honesty that The Empathy Exams does so cannily. Focused on the alcoholic and isolated Tilly, the book follows what happens when she's finally reunited — quite unexpectedly — with a member of her estranged family: a niece who is as lost as she is.