Some Stuff I'm Reading (or want to read) Right Now

The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison

Here’s an excerpt from the February issue of The Believer:

It just got an excellent review in The New York Times: “I’m not sure I’m capable of recommending a book because it might make you a better person. But watching the philosopher in Ms. Jamison grapple with empathy is a heart-expanding exercise.”


Letter from the New Yorker’s Archive: Rebecca Mead on the Wedding Industry:

I read Rebecca Mead’s “You’re Getting Married: The Wal-Martization of the Bridal Industry” early this morning when I couldn’t sleep. It’s interesting, i.e. bizarre/weird/awful. I want to write a short story about it. Mostly, it made me happy that this quote from a “mistress of ceremonies” at a bridal convention would never ever apply to me:

“Have you noticed how, from the minute you put that ring on her finger, your fiancée starts suffering from P.M.S.?” she said. “I mean premarital syndrome. She has lost all interest in things that aren’t to do with her wedding day. You’ve got to understand: She already had the dress picked out, she had the church picked out, she had the music picked out. You were the last element she picked out.”

I had a wedding once. I wasn’t really that into it. It’s one day. It’s only one day and then it’s just the two of you so you better like this “last element” a whole lot more than all of that other stuff.

Sometimes I don’t understand women at all.


Guernica posted a special issue on The American South: On the Map and in the Mind:


Occasionally I just need to reread Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”

“It has become popular to consider fiction in terms of empathy — how it can catalyze and deepen our awareness of lives beyond our own — but what if it can also catalyze other tendencies, other capacities or grooves of thought? Novels might not make us worse, but they can unlock parts of us that were already there, already dark, already violent or ruthless or self-destructive. People with eating disorders learn tricks from stories about anorexia. People with histories of drug abuse get triggered by stories of intoxication.” - Jamison

See Jamison speak at BinderCon in October!

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I realized that this causeless pain—​inexplicable and seemingly intractable—​was my true subject. It was frustrating. It couldn’t be pinned to any trauma; no one could be blamed for it. Because this nebulous sadness seemed to attach to female anxieties (cultural models of anorexia and cutting and women addicted to male attention), I began to understand it as inherently feminine, and because it was so unjustified by circumstance it began to feel inherently shameful. Each of its self-​destructive manifestations felt half-​chosen, half-cursed.

Leslie Jamison, Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain, VQR

Empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion.

Empathy isn’t just remembering how to say “that must be really hard”—it’s figuring out how to bring difficulty into the light so it can be seen at all. Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.

A 1983 study titled “The Structure of Empathy” found a correlation between empathy and four major personality clusters: sensitivity, nonconformity, even temperedness, and social self-confidence. I like the word “structure.” It suggests empathy is an edifice we build like a home or office—with architecture and design, scaffolding and electricity. The Chinese character for “listen” is built like this, a structure of many parts: the characters for ears and eyes, a horizontal line that signifies undivided attention, the swoop and teardrops of heart.
Rating high for the study’s “sensitivity” cluster feels intuitive. It means agreeing with statements like “I have at one time or another tried my hand at writing poetry” or “I have seen some things so sad they almost made me feel like crying” and disagreeing with statements like: “I really don’t care whether people like me or dislike me.” This last one seems to suggest that empathy might be, at root, a barter, a bid for others’ affection: “I care about your pain” is another way to say “I care if you like me.” We care in order to be cared for. We care because we are porous. The feelings of others matter, they are like matter: they carry weight, exert gravitational pull.

…We should empathize from courage, is the point—and it makes me think about how much of my empathy comes from fear. I’m afraid other people’s problems will happen to me, or else I’m afraid other people will stop loving me if I don’t adopt their problems as my own.

—  Some favorite lines from the eponymous essay in Leslie Jamison’s new book, “The Empathy Exams.”