11 April 2015

Review: The Empathy Exams: Essays

The Empathy Exams: Essays
The Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On the surface, this looked really interesting. A book about pain, about understanding other people's pain, about describing it and so on? Sounds like an interesting read. The end result is a little more mixed.

In a way, Jamison is trying to be a cross between Mary Roach and Sarah Vowell, providing short essays investigative/immersive journalism-style about various topics from fake internet diseases to people in jail to hardcore marathoners. When she is a reporter, or a minimal participant, the essays can be absolutely riveting. When the focus is more on Jamison, though, things feel less interesting and less essential. Probably the strongest essay in the bunch, about Morgellon's Disease, straddles that line expertly and ends up being the most compelling thing in the book.

Ultimately, in a book at least partially designed to make you care, being annoyed by aspects of it seems counterproductive. Part of it is the general problem in journalism about agenda-driven or too-personal storytelling, but part of it is simply the tone and attitude. Some will find it endearing, others annoyed, but the good parts of this ultimately far outweigh the bad. Closer to a 3.5.

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