Red Pen Reviews: Leslie Jamison’s ‘The Empathy Exams’

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I am writing my review of The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison, before I’ve finished reading it. I don’t think I’ve ever written a review from the point of view of an editor, but that seems like an interesting way to get at what, exactly, it is that I do. The Empathy Exams might not be the place to start, though, because I love everything so far.

The editor’s brain does a weird thing, even when reading for pleasure. I have a tendency to read to myself as though I’m reading out loud (which means slowly), and do read out loud most nights. I should have been born into a nice English family in the late eighteenth century, when reading aloud was an adult pastime. Reading in this manner is the best way to discern any errors in a piece of written work. That was a fact taught to me in middle school. It is much harder to skip over mistakes when you’re hearing them as opposed to when you’re reading in your head.

Reading aloud gets simple errors, like a forgotten comma that will change the meaning of the sentence. It reminds you that you’ve written the same word twice in a single paragraph (“aloud” for instance). Some words are easily repeatable, others stand out in a strange way when repeated and make the author seem lazy. (Does the above paragraph seem lazy? I used “out loud” in several places, and removed the word entirely at least once in the editing.)

Reading aloud also lets you hear the author. The best writers are good speakers. It is the same mechanism, but transcribed. And just as every person you know has a certain inflection that gives them away, or a cadence, or a tendency toward long or short sentences, each author has similar markers. This is voice.

I love Leslie Jamison’s voice. It is familiar. It is precise, but also fluid. I could tell by her voice that Jamison is about my age. I am not surprised that she grew up on the west coast. So her voice draws me in, and I am not disappointed to stick around.

Jamison makes writing appear easy. That is a feat. As with anything that requires skill (dancing, singing, astrophysics), a master at work in her field seems at rest while working. I know that this book of essays took considerable time and a great deal of dedication. I can tell by the lack of errors. But it doesn’t feel overworked. It doesn’t wander off without bringing you back. It doesn’t feel like sentences were simply added because she liked them, or words were replaced in order to sound more intelligent. The Empathy Exams reads like it woke up like that (to misquote Beyoncé).

Having nothing to complain about when reading for pleasure is an odd sensation. A number of other books I’m reading right now have areas for improvement, though I still enjoy them. Finding flawless prose is not a requirement for my enjoying a book, but man is it fun when it happens.

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