cover image Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness

Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness

George Saunders. Random House, $14 trade paper ISBN 978-0-8129-9627-2

An expansion of a commencement speech passed around the web, this essay hits warm and tender notes without straying from safety zone of feel-good advice. In a tone by turns grandfatherly and fun-loving, renowned fiction writer Saunders (Tenth of December) identifies his main regrets in life as what he calls "failures of kindness." While his exploration of kindness initially promises to pull from science and history, it falls back on the maligning of certain self-focused beliefs already widely maligned: the belief that one is indispensable to yet distinct from the universe, and the idea that humans are eternal. Portraying common major life goals (raising children, succeeding in one's career) as part of a never-ending, accomplishment-based cycle, Saunders impugns the cycle for distracting individuals from the important questions, yet he does not adequately establish why pursuing these should hamper an investigation of the meaning of life. Nor does he address obvious counterpoints%E2%80%94that children constitute a personal value of parents and that their pride is therefore an expression of personal joy. As life advice, the speech contains standard contradictions: seek the life that is most fulfilling to you individually, yet follow pursuits that will ultimately diminish your sense of self. His wording is genteel and his examples vivid, but the overall impression is that of a standard-issue secular sermon on loving one another. Agent: Esther Newberg, ICM. (Apr.)