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DisclosureGallatin CanyonGaudi AfternoonGenerosityGeorgia Under WaterGhost at the WindowGiftedGiganticGirl in TranslationGirl Walking BackwardsGirls Closed InGirls Like UsGod HeadGod Is DeadGod Is Not OneGods and BeastsGoldengroveGone GirlGood and GoneGood GriefGrace, Tamar and Laszlo the BeautifulGuises of DesireHalf In Love With DeathHappiness Sold SeparatelyHappy FamilyHappy Mutant Baby PillsHappy Now?HarleyHarry Potter and the Sorcererís StoneHe Counts Their TearsHeartbeatHeftHell's IslandHey, Wait...High HeatHolidays On IceHope in a JarHot MilkHotel on the Corner of Bitter and SweetHotel WorldHotels of North AmericaHouse of JavaHow a Gunman Says GoodbyeHow People ChangeHow to Be GoodHow to Set a Fire and WhyHow to Stop TimeHug MeI Can See YouI Don't Know How She Does ItI'd Know You AnywhereI'm Traveling AloneIf I Fall, If I DieIf You StayImagine Me GoneImposter for HireIn ZanesvilleInfinite JestIngloriousInnocentInnocent WorldInnocentsInspired SleepInvisibleIronshoreIs This What 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for LoveMagnificenceMaking ScenesMaliceMan and BoyMan in the WoodsManstealing for Fat GirlsMary, MaryMercy StreetMerry Christmas, Alex CrossMiddlesexMischlingMisfortuneMissing PresumedMoby DickMomma and the Meaning of LifeMonsterMonths and SeasonsMr. CommitmentMrs. DallowayMunich AirportMurder BookMurder in ByzantiumMurder in the InnMusic for TorchingMy AbandonmentMy Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me UpMy Life with CorpsesMy Name Is RedMy Sister's KeeperMystery Time StoriesNasty, Short and BrutalNecessary NoiseNelson Mandela's Favorite African FolktalesNemesisNeuroticaNever Fade AwayNever Let Me GoNew Australian StoriesNew York 2140Night FilmNina: AdolescenceNo One Can Pronounce My NameNo Place to HideNone of the AboveNorth of BeautifulNothing RightNovel About My WifeObjects of My AffectionObservatory MansionsOdd Child OutOdd HoursOddsOld SchoolOn Chesil BeachOn the CouchOnce You Go BackOne Flew Over The Cuckoo's NestOne Good TurnOne More WednesdayOne Pill Makes You SmallerOptic Nerve #11Our Souls at NightOver Tumbled GravesPaint It BlackPanicParadiseParadise LodgeParanoiaParty GirlPeculiaPerfect LivesPharmakonPhobicPianoPictures of YouPilgrim at Tinker CreekPlaying with FirePlea of InsanityPopCoPoppy ShakespearePower SplitPreaching to the CorpsePrepPresumed InnocentProzac HighwayPumping Up NapoleonPureRachel's HolidayRacing the DevilRadiant CoolRaptors Red SnowRelentlessRemembrance of Things Past, Vol 1: CombrayRescueReturn to IsisReunion at Red Paint BayRevolting YouthRevolutionary RoadRight LivelihoodsRippleRoomRun DownRun for Your LifeSamaritanSand DollarSaturdaySaturday's ChildSay You Are My SisterSay You're One of ThemSay You're SorrySaying It Out LoudSchopenhauer's TelescopeSeason to TasteSecond LifeSee How SmallSeed of the Dogwood TreeSelf-Portrait with BoySerious GirlsSexyShades of BlueShadow BabyShamelessShatteredShooterShort PeopleShutter IslandShy GirlSigned, Mata HariSilencedSilent CruiseSince You AskSister CrazySister 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SubjectsTrailer GirlTransparencyTraumaTreacherous LoveTrespassTriburbiaTucker PeakTuringTwentieth Century EightballTwinmakerTwo Can PlayTwo Little Girls in BlueUnaccustomed EarthUnder Rose-Tainted SkiesUnder the DamUnder the HarrowUnder the InfluenceUnfitUnholy StoriesUniversal HarvesterUnkemptUnlessUp in FlamesUp in the AirUpstateValenciaVenus DriveVeronika Decides to DieVery ValentineViolet & ClaireVisits from The Drowned GirlVoid MoonWaiting for SunriseWakeWastelandWatching the DarkWe Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are OkayWelding with ChildrenWell-Remembered DaysWemberly WorriedWhat Became of UsWhat It Means to Love YouWhat the Birds SeeWhat Waiting Really MeansWhat Was She Thinking? Notes on a ScandalWhat We Don't Know About ChildrenWhat's So Terrible About Swallowing an Apple Seed?When My Heart Joins the ThousandWhen We Were AnimalsWhen We Were OrphansWhere We LivedWhite HotWhite HousesWhy Did I EverWidowWild AwakeWild ChildWill@epicqwest.comWillful CreaturesWitWithout TessWolf in White VanWomen's Murder Club Box SetYou or Someone Like YouYou Should Have KnownYou Will Know MeYour Body is ChangingYour Heart Belongs to MeZapZap
Nick Hornby again shows that he is head and shoulders above
most of the crowd of British novelists with his latest work, How to Be Good. Thats not to say it is a great novel, but
it is funny, moving, gripping, and thought-provoking, which is certainly enough
to be going on with.
The novel takes a standard ethical
problem and makes it the central theme of the problem. Among current ethicists, the most widely
read argument for the disruption of ordinary life to help the needy is by Peter
Singer, currently at Princeton University.
Singer, in his article Famine, Affluence, and Morality, argues that
people in the West have a moral obligation to make serious sacrifices to help
people in need of help to save their lives, whether those people are on the
other side of the world or outside ones front door.
Katie and David live in London with
their two children. She is a doctor and
he is a writer. Katie thinks of herself
as a good person, and takes pride in her profession. But David has taken on the role of Angriest Man in Holloway,
and writes a column for their local newspaper expressing his anger at the rest
of the world, especially at people like his wife who preach liberal values yet
never do anything significant to translate those values into practice. David rails against the hypocrisy and
self-deception of the rest of the world, although he himself earns hardly any
money, and is dependent on Katie to pay for the weekly shopping bills. Katie is understandably frustrated and
alienated from her husband, and has started an affair, but she is having some
trouble maintaining her self-image as a good person.
But Katies troubles are only just
starting, because David undergoes a transforming experience at the hands of a
local guru who calls himself GoodNews.
David loses all his anger, and becomes utterly focused on the need to
make the world a better place. He still
does not get a real job, but he does start telling people on his street that
they should take in homeless youth to live in their houses; he also insists
that he and Katie take in a young homeless person, in addition to having
GoodNews living in their spare room.
Its not long before Katie moves out, unable to contain her anger at
The twist is that Katie finds it
very difficult to justify her anger, because she thinks that in principle David
might be right, and she concedes that he probably has helped the world through
his actions. Yet at the same time, she
finds herself inconvenienced and annoyed by Davids sanctimonious
attitudes. Davids transformation also
causes bitter disputes with and between their two children, Tom and Molly. The greatest strength of How to Be Good
is Hornbys ability to capture family tension and the way that people will take
positions simply in order to annoy other people in the family. He captures both the anger and the humor
that fills so much of family life.
Its no surprise that modern family
life is to a large extent incompatible with a persistent and thoughtful concern
for the needs of the rest of the world, but it is interesting to see the kinds
of tensions and problems that it causes to the family when David makes it his
lifes work to save the world. It is
Katie who tells their story, and so we get her view of Davids
eccentricities. She is a quirky and
honest narrator, willing to confess all her faults, and easy for the reader to
identify with. Although the number of
people who are sympathetic to Davids transformation may be small; when I
discussed Peter Singers article on the duties of people in the prosperous
world to help others with students in my class, they were nearly unanimous in
expressing their beliefs that we only have duties to their families, and that
we have no obligations to anyone else.
If my students are representative of the rest of the United States, then
few people here will sympathize with the liberal dilemma that forms the crux of
ultimately its not the difficulty of living with do-gooders that holds ones
interest, but rather the focus on the difficulty of holding a marriage together
over the years. Hornby is surprisingly
bleak on this topic he takes it for granted that boredom and hostility will creep
into any long-term relationship, and asks what reason there can be for staying
in a marriage. In the end, it seems he is unsure whether theres any good
answer to his own question. To read
Hornby in a rather literal way, one comes to the conclusion that not only is it
impossible to be a good citizen of the world, but its not even possible to be
a good spouse. But he is still enough
of a liberal, despite the near impossibility of success, that he still thinks
that we should make the attempt.
© 2002 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College,
Long Island. He is editor of Metapsychology Online Review.
His main research is on philosophical issues in psychiatry.
He is especially interested in exploring how philosophers can
play a greater role in public life, and he is keen to help foster
communication between philosophers, mental health professionals,
and the general public.
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