Make it Scream, Make it Burn

Leslie Jamison

Make it Scream, Make it Burn
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Make it Scream, Make it Burn

Leslie Jamison

‘Intelligent, compassionate, and so fiercely, prodigiously brave. This is the essay at its creative, philosophical best’ - Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries on The Empathy Exams

A profound exploration of the oceanic depths of longing and obsession, Make it Scream, Make it Burn is a book about why and how we tell stories. It takes the reader deep into the lives of strangers - from a woman healed by the song of ‘the loneliest whale in the world’ to a family convinced their child is a reincarnation of a lost pilot - and asks how we can bear witness to the changing truths of others' lives while striving to find a deeper connection to the complexities of our own.


Leslie Jamison’s first essay collection, The Empathy Exams, made Readings’ Best of Nonfiction list in 2014. It is a book we still recommend and to which many of us still return. Jamison’s new essay collection, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, is destined for a similar fate.

Ordered within three sections – ‘Longing’, ‘Looking’, and ‘Dwelling’ – the essays roam through topics that, on the surface, appear disparate. Jamison explicates on everything from the so-called loneliest whale in the world (and its surprising number of devotees) to a reckoning with her own past and present self in a moment of intense transformation. She moves from one to the other via examinations of art, of children who believe they are reincarnated, recovery from addiction, becoming a stepmother, and so much more. About her own genocide tourism, she is bracing: ‘But walking among bones was something else … It felt disrespectful to walk over the dead but also honest. We are always doing it anyway’.

These essays are all driven by a deep, restless curiosity about the breadth of the human experience and the ways in which it is captured and explored. Many of Jamison’s observations about the work of other artists are equally applicable to her own. As she writes of the photographer Annie Appel, the works that fascinate all of these artists are testament ‘to the human desire to witness other people’. Jamison and her subjects also share a reverence for art and the meaning it offers us, even as they all question their own veracity and motives with every breath.

Beyond the wonderfully unusual content, this collection is also notable for its brilliant writing. Jamison’s words are poised and original; her excruciatingly articulate yet always compassionate observations are compelling, regardless of topic.

Elke Power is the editor of Readings Monthly.

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