Released this past April, Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison is the latest winner of Graywolf Press's nonfiction prize. I love that it boldly declares itself to be a collection of essays. Essay writers who want to publish are typically told to avoid the word at all costs because publishers typically avoid the form. Not Graywolf Press.
Here's what the copy on Graywolf's website says about Empathy Exams:
Beginning with her experience as a medical actor, paid to act out symptoms for medical students to diagnose, Leslie Jamison’s visceral and revealing essays ask essential questions about our basic understanding of others: How should we care about one another? How can we feel another’s pain, especially when pain can be assumed, distorted, or performed? Is empathy a tool by which to test or even grade each other?
Big questions. The kind worth spending time with on the page.
I went to Jamison's reading on the evening of her book launch at Common Good Books in St. Paul. She was lovely and articulate. I bought the book and have been reading the essays, savoring them. The first essay, the title essay, starts with Jamison evaluating herself, even as a medical actor she is evaluating medical students, on the personal capacity for empathy. I'm not finished with the book yet but I'm getting the definite impression as I proceed that the essays are also turning their focus, testing the empathy of the reader.