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Editor’s Choice: George Saunders on the rarity of kindness in the world

Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness; by George Saunders; Random House, Unpaginated ($20). To scrupulous literalists, this isn’t really a book. It’s a short published commemorative of the sort that modern chain bookstores also sell (along with coffee mugs, tote bags, chocolates etc.) for their patrons to enjoy or give as gifts to the bookish folks they know. In this case, it seems a gift and commemorative for the graduation season that is about to begin in earnest.

Saunders is the terrific writer who teaches at Syracuse University and is no stranger to Buffalo appearances. He has, among other things, this in common with Mark Twain besides life upstate – that while the world is most comfortable calling him a “humorist” or “humor writer,” that is only one minor – if popular – role he performs in the multi-act pageant he presents to the American reading public.

In this case, Saunders gave a convocation address at Syracuse last May and found it published on the New York Times website, with the immediate avalanche of “shares” that, in the modern world, incontrovertibly denotes attention, if not always popularity.

So here it is as a tiny, quasi-book printed on the right side pages while on the left side are representations of stars in the cosmos or, to be more accurate, lights amassing so thickly in the surrounding dark that all darkness is replaced by light at the end.

What Saunders is doing here is playing the ancient literary role of “the old fart, his best years behind him who, over the course of his life has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me) (who) gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people with all their best years ahead of them (that would be you.)” His subject, looking back on his life, is regret. His biggest one?

His “failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering and I responded sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.” And that leads him to prescriptions for leading a kinder life, one of which he’s helpless to exclude is merely growing older: “As we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical really.”

– Jeff Simon