The year I first swam in the Mediterranean. The year my wife became pregnant again. The year I finally finished Homage to Catalonia. The year I finally began a new novel. The year I fell in love with Diego Velázquez. The year of questionable decisions in a Neapolitan disco. The year I learned about kombucha. The year I would move overseas for a while. The year I would sometimes wonder why I’d ever come back. The year of the Trump hole. The year of YouTubing Mr. Rogers for self-medication. The year everybody needed to get the f*** off the Internet. The year of spectacular mid-Atlantic fall.
I’ve always believed in the idea of a zeitgeist, but there are years when the local topography feels especially entangled with the global map. 2016, for me at least, was not one of those. When I look back, I can’t avoid the sense of democratic crisis in Europe, or the open conflagration in the Middle East, or the airborne toxic event that was the U.S. presidential election. Winter may well be coming. Yet I also remember, at the more intimate level on which life is mostly lived, moments of mystery, adventure, and grace that seem connected to some other story entirely. Nowhere were those moments more readily available than in the books I chose to read. Perhaps it’s most accurate to say, then, that 2016 was a year that gave me plenty of reasons to keep reading.
As ever, it’s hard to settle on a single title to recommend above any other, but I think I can get the list of absolute best things I read this year down to four. Around the start of a three-month sojourn in Barcelona, I tackled Javier Cercas’s The Anatomy of a Moment, and found it to be be one of the most penetrating, mature, and nuanced books about politics ever written. Cercas’s ostensible subject is the coup that nearly toppled Spain’s fragile democracy in the early ’80s. It’s a story he unfolds with a characteristic blend of factual scruple and novelistic technique: the pacing is Three Days of the Condor by way of 24 Hour Psycho. Underneath, though, is an argument about heroism that feels both true and profoundly at odds with our usual assumptions. In the context of a government of men, Cercas suggests, real and durable greatness is marked by compromises, trade-offs, disappointments, and missed opportunities, rather than their absence. Not to give away the ending, but maybe politics is more like real life than we’d like to imagine.
While in Iberia, I also read José Saramago’s Blindness, and immediately regretted the 20 years it took me to pick it up. It, too, works as a kind of political allegory, with hard-to-miss Platonic overtones, but even more than Cercas, Saramago sees power relations as emergent properties of the whole rich mess of human experience: love, sex, death, community. That he can convey this richness with such impoverished means — the characters are all, for most of the novel, imprisoned in a building they can’t see — is a miracle of art. As beautiful and harrowing as its obvious model, The Plague (and for my money more lifelike in its intimacies), this is a novel people will still be reading in 100 years, if they’re still reading at all. Or indeed, still alive on planet Earth.
Another discovery for me this year, though of a different sort, was the Finnish-Swedish author and illustrator Tove Jansson. Best known for her ingenious Moomin comics, Jansson also wrote several books aimed at adults, including the The Summer Book. Not much happens in this portrait of a headstrong girl and her equally headstrong grandmother and the island where they spend their summers, but that’s the novel’s great virtue. The Summer Book is pure loveliness. The movements of tides and winds and boats and insects loom larger for our narrator than the currents of history, and the profound quiet of the setting — I’m reminded of Akhil Sharma’s description of a prose like “white light” — allows us to hear Jansson’s unsparing and ironic tenderness, a tone that remains purely her own, even in translation.
The fourth of my European discoveries this year was Christopher Isherwood. I was on my way to Berlin and, like the guy who wears the concert tee-shirt to the actual concert, decided to take Goodbye to Berlin. What drew me in initially was Isherwood’s (to my ear) flawless prose, which by itself would put him in a select group of 20th-century English novelists. But the real rewards were the book’s surprising scope and depth. For my money, Isherwood and his fictional avatar cast a more comprehensive eye on their moment than Evelyn Waugh or Henry Green or even Graham Greene. The novel walks the tragicomic line with an irreproachable poker face, and so maybe sets an example for us all in these shall-we-say interesting times.
Later, back on U.S. soil, I found myself allergic to my traditional time-waster, the newspaper, and so tried to escape into the news of other periods, to restore some perspective. Around the time of the party conventions, I read Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and (though it’s an odd kind of compliment) found it to be Norman Mailer’s most disciplined performance, and one that still resonates today. Barbarians at the Gate, which I found for a dollar at a library book sale in Maine, has likewise aged well, in part because the rank self-dealing it depicts now seems a kind of national ethos. As for Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: The Ascent…well, I guess it says something that I turned to this for refuge. Much was made earlier this year of certain historical parallels, but even as it reminds us that “it can happen here,” the book is also detailed enough to illuminate the ways it’s not happening here, not yet, and needn’t ever, unless we let it.
As for contemporary fiction, I read a lot of what you might call flaneurial fiction, fiction in the shadow of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and maybe Robert Walser’s The Walk. I finally read, for example, Teju Cole’s Open City, a New York novel of exquisite intelligence and refinement, weaving together urban anomie, the history of Dutch colonialism, and the aftermath of September 11. I read Valeria Luiselli’s haunting debut, Faces in the Crowd (which does the same for Harlem, potted plants, and Federico García Lorca), and Álvaro Enrigue’s psychedelic Sudden Death (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, tennis, the conquest of the Americas). Then, in search of further antecedents, I read, belatedly, Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co., whose wit and melancholy sent me on a Vila-Matas bender.
In a somewhat different vein, I read Amit Chaudhuri’s beautiful Odysseus Abroad and Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. These are flaneurial novels in the sense of being plotless, but for the essayistic digressions of a Cole or a Luiselli, they substitute the momentum of a quest, a walk with a destination. And each, I think, further complicates the ongoing debate about fictiveness and authenticity. Though neither hides its “reality hunger,” exactly, each deploys on its autobiographical material a novelistic imagination as powerful as anything in Charles Dickens…it’s just tucked in the corners, where you don’t quite notice it. The result in each case is a work where the world and the word are beautifully in balance. (In August, when I finally got around to Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, I was reminded that this subtle form of transformation is an old-fashioned form of magic.)
As for current fiction that more fully gratifies my own imagination hunger, I can point to Javier Marías’s Thus Bad Begins, a tour de force of wit, suspense, and history. I can point to Nathan Hill’s The Nix, whose disparate concerns — video games, parental neglect, political anger — are bound together by the warmth, charm, and wit of the author’s voice. And I can point to Don DeLillo’s Zero K, whose extraordinary final pages seem a capstone for the author’s work of the last 20 years. To quote DeLillo himself (writing of Harold Brodkey), it’s been one of “the great brave journeys of American literature.”
Finally, speaking of great, brave journeys, I can’t look back on this year without talking about Go Down, Moses. I’ve been reading my way through the Faulkner oeuvre for almost 20 years now, and am down to what I think of as the “third shelf;” soon I’ll be left with only Requiem for a Nun and Soldier’s Pay. I’ve put off reading GD,M in its entirety because many of the short stories it collects are available in other forms; I don’t know how many different versions of “The Bear” I’ve read in my lifetime. But Go Down, Moses, taken as a whole, is really a novel, and one that reminds me of all the novel can do, as in this description of Sam Feathers’s wilderness grave:
the tree, the other axle-grease tin nailed to the trunk, but weathered, rusted, alien too yet healed already into the wilderness’ concordant generality, raising no tuneless note, and empty, long since empty of the food and tobacco he had put into it that day, as empty of that as it would presently be of this which he drew from his pocket — the twist of tobacco, the new bandanna handkerchief, the small paper sack of the peppermint candy which Sam had used to love; that gone, too, almost before he had turned his back, not vanished but merely translated into the myriad life which printed the dark mold of these secret and sunless places.
The dark mold, the secret and sunless places, yes, but also the axle-grease and the peppermint candy, the specific, local, and alive, and the living generality that heals it all together. It’s an act of imagination on Faulkner’s part, and on his reader’s, but no less real — in fact more real — for it. And maybe in the most sunless part of this generally dark year, that’s reason enough for hope.
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In her April review of Thomas Kunkel’s Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, Janet Malcolm discussed Mitchell’s beloved, beautiful stories — “cryptic and ambiguous and incantatory and disconnected and extravagant and oracular and apocalyptic” — and his inclination toward invention — toward “radical departures from factuality.” “Mitchell’s genre,” she wrote, “is some kind of hybrid, as yet to be named.”
Almost three-quarters of a century after The New Yorker published Mitchell’s first story, Mitchell’s genre, some kind of hybrid, still has yet to be named. Or, rather, perhaps, Mitchell’esque genres have yet to be given a name that fits. Literary Journalism? New Journalism? Literary Nonfiction, Narrative Nonfiction, Immersion, Creative Nonfiction, Faction? Fiction?
Some time ago, I received the suggestion that I conflate two characters in a manuscript I hoped would someday be a book that, in the tradition of, say, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, combined field reporting, memoir, essay, and history. Some kind of hybrid.
Conflating my characters — two children, in this case — would create a single and more compelling protagonist, I was told. Reflexively, I etched in quotes. “My” characters? But I also felt a different urge: It was true. Inventing one composite kid from two could make the story stronger. Certainly it would make writing the story easier for me, and I wanted that too. But how did what I want matter? I come in part from cheating stock — thieves, adulterers, at least two murderers, as far as I know. I was curious: Could I be a cheater, or, more precisely, a compositor, too?
According to Dan Ariely, absolutely. We all are cheats and liars, his research suggests, and, for writers of some kind of hybrid, this matters, perhaps a great deal. Professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, Ariely has spent more than a decade studying why humans don’t tell the truth. Last month, with collaborator Yael Melamede, he released a documentary film, (Dis)Honesty: The Truth about Lies. In 2012, he published a book, The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves, including a back-cover blurb by A. J. Jacobs, author of the immersion memoir The Year of Living Biblically: “…those who claim not to tell lies are liars.”
Humans, evolved to find advantage at the lowest possible cost, possess “a deeply ingrained propensity to lie to ourselves and to others,” Ariely reports. We are dishonest to serve the self — the ego, Latin and Greek for “I,” distinct from the world and others. We are dishonest to serve our fears — of inadequacy, of rejection, of difference, obscurity, going broke, oblivion, death. We are dishonest to serve our desires — for meaning, love, power, fame, a single compelling protagonist. In Joseph Mitchell’s case, perhaps, for art.
Sometimes, he says, we’re dishonest so we can think of ourselves as good and honest people. As Marcel Proust once also observed, “It is not only by dint of lying to others, but also of lying to ourselves, that we cease to notice that we are lying.” To further complicate matters, says Ariely, “The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.” This, it seems to me, is both the good news and the bad.
Orwell for one believed that “all writers are vain, selfish, and lazy.” He himself was sometimes a cheat, and also a coward, at least as far as we know. I’ve read Homage to Catalonia several times over now, and an essay he wrote about writing books. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle,” he observed, “like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
The Polish author Ryszard Kapuściński, complicated, enigmatic, alternately choleric and charming, comes to mind. “One Kapuściński is worth more than a thousand whimpering and fantasizing scribblers,” said Salman Rushdie of his friend. Said John Updike, Kapuściński wrote “with a magical elegance that…achieves poetry and aphorism.” Yet, in Imperium, a personal account of communist Russia — the camps, the purges — Kapuściński reports nothing of his onetime collaboration with the communist party in his homeland Poland. When the director of Iranian studies at Stanford met with Artur Domoslawski, Kapuściński’s biographer and friend, he said to Domoslawski, “You can open Shah of Shahs at any page, point to a passage, and I will tell you what’s wrong or inaccurate.” And then he proceeded to do so.
Kapuściński once yelled at a friend asking about his books’ omissions and fabrications. “You don’t understand a thing! I’m not writing so the details add up — the point is the essence of the matter!” On this point, Kapuściński was right. In literature, the essence of the matter rather than the adding up of details is the point. But, if in the end, readers perceive that “essence” comes in disregard of the worlds of possibility found between writer and reader — and if readers never pick up another of your books again — what’s the point at all?
Fabricators like Mitchell and Kapuściński may now be the exception, as Charles McGrath wrote in his New Yorker review of Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker, “because now…it’s harder to get away with,” but their stories, Ariely’esque in the telling, are enduring, and enduringly stirring.
Consider anthropologist Wendy “Wednesday” Martin, for instance. Her new book, The Primates of Park Avenue, one of two books she’s written that she describes as “very research-intensive blendings of memoir and social science,” earned this New York Post headline in early June: “Upper East-Side Housewife’s Tell-All Book Is Full of Lies.”
After The Post published its revelations of Martin’s practices — compression, conflation, fabrication — Cary Goldstein, vice president and executive director of publicity at Simon & Schuster, told The New York Times, “It is a common narrative technique in memoirs for some names, identifying characteristics and chronologies to be adjusted or disguised, and that is the case with Primates of Park Avenue.”
Ariely argues that the human inclination toward deception, highly evolved and driven by dread or desire, has a slow corrosive effect on society. Think subprime mortgage crisis. Neural MRIs show the more we lie, the less the region of the brain associated with guilt responds, suggesting the act of lying desensitizes us to the shame of lying. There are those who argue dishonesty has a slow, corrosive effect on nonfiction. Think Jim Fingal, the one-time Harper’s fact-checker who took John D’Agata and his fictionalized essay “About a Mountain” to task in the book they co-wrote, called The Lifespan of a Fact. Near the end of the book, Fingal and D’Agata come to verbal fisticuffs. Fingal writes, exasperated, “I mean, the whole point of all these shit storms over the last ten years…isn’t that the reading public doesn’t understand that writers sometimes ‘use their imaginations.’ It’s about people searching for some sort of Truth…and then being devastated when they find out that the thing they were inspired by turned out to be deliberately falsified…for seemingly self-aggrandizing purposes.”
Or maybe don’t think of Jim Fingal, however spot-on his words. Maybe we ditch Jim Fingal, who, it was revealed in post-publication coverage, partially reinvented his correspondence with D’Agata for their nonfiction book. “Contrary to the impression created by the promotional material, and the way it has subsequently been characterized in reviews,” wrote Craig Silverman on Poynter.org, “…The Lifespan of a Fact isn’t, you know, factual. D’Agata never called Fingal a dickhead, to cite but one example.”
In journalism, where truth is an explicit part of the deal between writer and reader, shit storms are understandable and necessary, as real harm is often a consequence.
Ironically, during filming, Ariely and Melamede couldn’t find any journalists who’d talk to them about deception in their field.
Yet in hybrid genres where rules are less clearly defined, the consequences of unreliability are also often felt at great intensity. Even in memoir, recently described by Daphne Merkin as an “elasticized form for truths and untruths,” outrage and pain seem to register when a writer is perceived to betray the trust.
It is curious to note the research that suggests the emotional experience of social pain, and betrayal specifically, lights up the same regions of the brain as physical pain. Humans remember social pain more acutely and for a longer duration than physical pain. Neurologically, the experience of being cast away appears to mirror that of being burned. Like, with fire. I confess to feeling something akin to this when I learned the cat in Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek didn’t exist. It was a metaphorical cat. Jesus Christ. Annie Dillard. I thought she was perfect.
The truth is, many readers want to believe they know who the author is. Readers have for millennia. In Tiger Writing: Art, Culture, and the Interdependent Self, novelist Gish Jen reminds us that the independent self — “the self unhitched from the collective” — has been “making things up [since] even before the words ‘fiction’ and ‘poetry’ were coined.” In ancient Rome and Greece, writers who fabricated were eyed with suspicion, “not only because they could make the untrue seem true, but because they tended to be highly individualistic, with interests that might or might not be yours.” This has not changed. Many readers still eye with suspicion writers who fabricate. Which, if we’re really being honest with ourselves, (which, as Ariely notes, is harder than it might first appear) is quite a lot of writers. Hell, many readers eye with suspicion writers who don’t fabricate. As author Robin Hemley observes in A Field Guide for Immersion Writing, “Whether you’re putting yourself in harm’s way emotionally, psychologically, or physically, it’s almost a guarantee that you’re going to get pummeled in one way or another.”
Orwell called for “discipline.” In Homage, he copped, “…beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events.”
In her essay for the anthology Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations on the Fringes of Nonfiction, Naomi Kimbell advises, “[T]he first and most important gesture a writer can make to the reader is letting him or her in on the joke.” And yet, in the words of author Lee Gutkind, founder of Creative Nonfiction magazine, there are no “creative nonfiction police” handcuffing those who don’t, nor should there be.
Gutkind, identified on his website with a quote from Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” advises writers to rely upon conscience. Yes, fact-checking is critical, he writes in You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction, but so too “following the old-fashioned golden rule by treating your characters and their stories with as much respect as you would want them to treat you.” “Conscience,” he writes, “a reminder and an invisible artbiter over us all.”
And, yet, as Ariely’s research and the nonfiction world’s regular shit storms reveal, relying on conscience is slippery business.
Ariely recommends concrete approaches designed to address the conflict of interest between self and other — a signed legal contract, if you’re a trader at J.P. Morgan Chase & Company, for instance. If you’re a writer of some kind of hybrid that blends fact and invention, an author’s note, disclaimer, afterword, use of the conditional tense, caveat, or limitless other artful and crafty techniques. It’s reasonable to assume this is why Simon & Schuster announced soon after The Primates of Park Avenue shit storm that they would add “a clarifying note” to the e-book and subsequent print editions. At the back of the Kindle edition I consulted in mid June, in addition to an introduction that describes the book as “an academic experiment,” is now an author’s note:
This work is a memoir. It reflects my experiences over a period of several years. Some names and identifying details have been changed, and some individuals portrayed are composites. For narrative purposes and to mask the identities of certain individuals, the timeline of certain events has been altered or compressed.
“Every time we lie, we dilute the trust,” Ariely said when we corresponded. Ariely can’t prove this with empirical evidence, but he believes it to be true. When Ariely was in high school in Israel, a magnesium battlefield flare exploded at his feet, and he was trapped in a chemical fire. He spent three years in a hospital. “The experience of pain has led me to beauty,” he later wrote in an essay. Also, “as I am not very concerned with my personal ‘small problems,’ I…can’t get too excited about the ‘small problems’ others are experiencing.”
All the same, Ariely took time to respond to my questions: Given everything we know, why do nonfiction writers continue to make stuff up and not tell readers? Given everything we know, why do readers continue to feel betrayed and outraged when nonfiction writers do this?
“I don’t think this is planned,” Ariely said in a recording he made because typing can be hard. “I think people start writing something that is based in reality, and then the boundary for what is acceptable and what is not acceptable is not very clear.” He said, “It’s very human.”
So, too, the timeless desire for a good story well told. Writes Malcolm of Mitchell, “We should respect his inhibiting reverence for literary transcendence and be grateful for the work that got past his censor.”
While Mitchell’s genre remains nameless, there is a name for the startling discovery of the truth of it: Anagnorisis, Aristotle wrote in his Poetics, the moment of change from ignorance to knowledge. I was wrong. It is here, he believed, “the finest recognitions.”
This essay was adapted and updated from a longer article about constructing nonfiction personae, originally published in the pedagogy department of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies.
Image Credit: Pexels/Sergey Zhumaev.
In the opening to Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes an Italian militiaman he meets in Barcelona, “a tough-looking youth of twenty-five or six, with reddish-yellow hair and powerful shoulders.” The militiaman is trying to read a map one of the officers has unrolled across a table, but the militiaman doesn’t know how to read a map. When someone makes a remark that reveals Orwell is a foreigner, the militiaman turns to Orwell and questions him:
I answered in my bad Spanish: “No, Inglés. Y tú?”
As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy. I hoped he liked me as well as I liked him. But I also knew that to retain my first impression of him I must not see him again; and needless to say I never did see him again. One was always making contacts of that kind in Spain.
Leslie Jamison’s new collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, demonstrates the kind of connection Orwell describes: she manages to bridge that “gulf of language and tradition” and meet her subjects “in utter intimacy” like Orwell does, whether they’re imprisoned long-distance runners, sufferers from a possibly imaginary disease, or writers living in some of the most violent places in Mexico.
Every day, news reports on drone strikes, healthcare, and domestic surveillance show us that how we view each other isn’t an issue that’s been settled. In an early essay, “Devil’s Bait,” Jamison visits a conference for people with a condition known as Morgellons disease, which causes “sores, itching, fatigue, pain, and something called formication, the sensation of crawling insects.” A distinct feature of the condition is the appearance of “strange fibers emerging from underneath the skin.” The most distinct feature of the condition, however, is that it might not be a condition at all. The CDC thinks that Morgellons is an example of what’s known as a “delusional infestation” — meaning it might just be in people’s heads.
For a book about pain, empathy, and illness, Susan Sontag — author of such classic texts as Illness as Metaphor and Regarding the Pain of Others — should be a touchstone, and she is. Sontag pops up in essay after essay, like a methodological whack-a-mole. But while Sontag’s writings seem to drill from one level of analysis to the next, Jamison’s work functions more like an archeologist’s brush, exposing the layers of narrative and critique until a larger picture becomes visible.
Jamison is the author of a novel, The Gin Closet, which showcased her gift for lyrical prose and creating nuanced relationships between her characters. The Empathy Exams, like previous winners of Graywolf’s Nonfiction Prize, such as Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land and Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, isn’t just a collection of personal essays. Jamison uses the narrative and the critical together to interrogate the idea of empathy itself. Seemingly disparate essays on a grueling ultra-marathon in Tennessee, the notion of sentimentality, and the wrongly convicted West Memphis Three work together to probe at empathy from multiple angles. The collection’s first essay, “The Empathy Exams” details Jamison’s time as a medical actor:
My job is medical actor, which means I play sick. I get paid by the hour. Medical students guess my maladies. I’m called a standardized patient, which means I act toward the norms set for my disorders. I’m standardized-lingo SP for short. I’m fluent in the symptoms of preeclampsia and asthma and appendicitis. I play a mom whose baby has blue lips.
Even in seemingly small word choices, we can see Jamison unpacking the notion of pain. She’s “fluent” in her diseases; illness isn’t a binary, but a spectrum with degrees of mastery. Some of the medical students examining Jamison get nervous, while others “rattle through the checklist for depression like a list of things they need to get at the grocery store.” Her descriptions are clear and direct — the kind of prose that Orwell practiced and admired.
“Other students seem to understand that empathy is always perched precariously between gift and invasion,” Jamison notes. Throughout the book, we can see that she also negotiates this balance, such as when she talks to the attendees at the Morgellons conference. Jamison’s empathy, too, is perched between gift and invasion, but her perch helps her make sharp observations about how people respond to pain and how people respond to other people’s pain.
At the end of “Devil’s Bait,” Jamison explores the ambiguity she feels about her trip to the Morgellons conference:
I went to Austin because I wanted to be a different kind of listener than the kind these patients had known: doctors winking at their residents, friends biting their lips, skeptics smiling in smug bewilderment. But wanting to be different doesn’t make you so. Paul told me his crazy-ass symptoms and I didn’t believe him. Or at least, I didn’t believe him the way he wanted to be believed. I didn’t believe there were parasites laying thousands of eggs under his skin, but I did believe he hurt like there were. Which was typical. I was typical. In writing this essay, how am I doing something he wouldn’t understand as betrayal? I want to say, I heard you. To say, I pass no verdicts. But I can’t say these things to him. So instead I say this: I think he can heal. I hope he does.
Leslie Jamison is a different kind of listener. She’s one willing to implicate herself and ask the tough questions about her (and our) capacity to understand each other. Jamison sees her subjects as similar to herself, but — even more importantly — she’s aware that she’s seeing her subjects as similar to herself. That bit of intellectual maneuvering lets her both experience empathy and examine it at the same time.
Orwell refused to shoot a half-dressed enemy soldier trying to hold his pants up as he ran. “I had come here to shoot at ‘Fascists,’” he wrote in “Looking Back on the Spanish War,” “but a man who is holding up his trousers isn’t a ‘Fascist,’ he is visibly a fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don’t feel like shooting at him.” In The Empathy Exams, Jamison’s essays do a rare thing: they show us — in many ways — what empathy means. They show us how we become, as Orwell wrote, “fellow-creatures.”
My book-loving friends keep writing me great emails that I feel compelled to share with all of you. Here’s one from my friend John about the great books he’s been reading:Currently reading Libra by Don Delillo. I’ve heard from a few people that it’s a modern classic, and though I don’t know if I necessarily agree with that, it is very good. Fictional retelling of the assassination of JFK. I think it might be overshadowed by Oliver Stone’s JFK, but I would say it’s an even more plausible a version of what happened. Just finished reading Dispatches by Michael Herr. Don’t know if you’ve read it, but you probably should. He was a freelance journalist in Vietnam (which is what the book is about) and was also the screenwriter for Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Probably the most readable book about the Vietnam War; haven’t read that much though. I also saw The Sheltering Sky on your queue. Amazing book. That really got me into reading again. Very stark, but somehow it struck a chord. Something about wanting to be an ex-pat, but also seeing the hubris that we Americans have, especially in relation to foreign cultures. Some things never change. Probably my fave author of right now is T.C. Boyle. Love his stuff. His last novel, Drop City, is a great read. The thing about him is that his stories are highly readable. Great stories, great characters.A couple of quick comments: I’ve been wanting to read Dispatches for a very long time, and I think most of you know how I feel about T.C. Boyle. Also, everyone should check out John’s new band The Vanity Fair, they were sent here to rock. I also got a great email from longtime Millions contributor Brian that I’d like to share with all of you:Not a lot of time, but just wanted to drop an e-mail, let you know I read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Fantastic. He went to Spain to write about the Spanish Civil War but felt so strongly he joined the fight. He was in the trenches, fought, got shot in the throat, recovered, took part in street battles in Barcelona, was pursued by the police for being a member of the Marxist group P.O.U.M., fled to England and wrote the book. This passage is from just before he fled: “I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination. White sierras, goatherds, dungeons of the Inquisition, Moorish palaces, black winding trains of mules, grey olive trees and groves of lemons, girls in black mantillas, the wines of Malaga and Alicante, cathedrals, cardinals, bull-fights, gypsies, serenades — in short, Spain. Of all Europe it was the country that had had most hold upon my imagination.”Great stuff guys. Thanks! If anyone else out there wants to contribute, just drop me an email. Remember, my Millions is your Millions. I have tons of stuff to write about, including the two books I finished last week, but I’m off to New York tomorrow for a few days, maybe a week, so it may have to wait until I get back.