cover image How We Want to Live: Narratives on Progress

How We Want to Live: Narratives on Progress

. Beacon Press (MA), $23 (168pp) ISBN 978-0-8070-4510-7

Seventeen eminent (e.g., Ishmael Reed, Bill McKibben, Alan Lightman, Alan Cheuse) and less-well-known writers ponder the elusive goal of social, global and personal progress in this mixed bag of essays. In a cogent plea for ecological sanity, Kirkpatrick Sale critiques a high-tech, expansionist global economy that gobbles up resources and creates unabating pollution while increasing the inequalities between the wealthy few and the billions of poor. Annie Dillard, in a wrenching examination of our emotional numbness to large-scale human tragedies, sketches a cosmic perspective on the cycle of life and death, with the aim of restoring a sense of each individual's importance. Nicholas Delbanco claims that the ethos of America is inextricably linked to the idea of forward motion and to ideals of self-improvement and self-reliance. But, he argues, ""sideways motion equally may represent advance."" Other contributors take a much more personal tack, defining progress so vaguely that the essays lose coherence. Poet Susan Wood tells how psychoanalysis helped her overcome recurrent nightmares, sleepwalking and writer's block; John Barth serves up a mannered karmic fable about stumbling upon a dead cat; novelist Shawn Wong reflects on his Chinese American heritage and envisages a tolerant multicultural society. Although the Shreves seem to have meant technological progress, the writers delivered much more personal definitions of what progress is. With such a broad, amorphous subject, it's perhaps inevitable that the result is a conversation with people talking largely to themselves. FYI: This is the Shreves' second book in a series of original essays on a single subject. The first, Outside the Law: Narratives on Justice in America, was published by Beacon in 1997.