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10th Grade202432 Stories4th of July99 DaysA Change in AltitudeA Demon in My ViewA Dream of WolvesA Falling KnifeA Finely Tuned Apathy MachineA Heart of StoneA Life Lived RidiculouslyA Multitude of SinsA Parting GiftA Question of BloodA Quiet PlaceA Red Heart of MemoriesA River SutraA Short History of Tractors in UkrainianA Slight Trick of the MindA Stir of BonesA Thousand Miles from NowhereA Voyage Long and StrangeA Wedding in December About a BoyAbraham LincolnAcross the River and Into the TreesActs of GodAfrican PsychoAfter DarkAfter YouAfter You'd GoneAfterwardsAgenda for MurderAliens in the Prime of Their LivesAll Alone in the UniverseAll Families Are PsychoticAll in the MindAll the Way HomeAltered LandAlternatives to SexAmanda's WeddingAmelia RulesAmericaAmerica AmericaAmnesiaAmong the DepartedAn Object of BeautyAngelsAngry Youth Comix #2AnimosityAnne SextonAre You Experienced?Aristotle and Poetic JusticeAristotle DetectiveArlington ParkArtemis FowlAs Hot as It Was You Ought to Thank MeAsking For MurderAtonementAway Laughing on a Fast CamelBabylon and Other StoriesBad BoyBad SeedBag Of BonesBalancing ActsBarbara the Slut and Other PeopleBeach RoadBeat the ReaperBeautiful GirlsBed of RosesBefore I Go to SleepBefore the FrostBeg the QuestionBeginner's GreekBellyBeneath the SkinBenedictionBest New American VoicesBig BrotherBilly and GirlBiteBlack & WhiteBlack HelicoptersBlack Market TruthBlameBlanketsBleed for MeBlind SightBlonde FaithBlood, Salt, WaterBlueprints for Building Better GirlsBody SurfingBoneMan's DaughtersBoneyardBoneyardBoomsdayBorder CrossingBoth Ways Is the Only Way I Want ItBoysBracketBrain TrustBrava, ValentineBreaking Out of BedlamBreathing UnderwaterBrick LaneBridge of SighsBridget JonesBridget Jones's DiaryBrief Interviews with Hideous MenBruisesBrŁselBullyBurn, Bitchy, BurnButterflyBy BloodBy The Sea ShoreCalled to KillCanadaCanvasCaricatureCase HistoriesCellCemetery DanceChange of HeartChangesChasing the DimeChild 44Cinema PanopticumCinnamon KissCirceCircle NineCity of the LostClay's WayClose toYouClose Your EyesCloud 9 AffairCoincidenceCold CaseCold HitCold in HandCollected StoriesCome Up and See Me SometimeComfort and JoyCompulsionConfessions of a ShopaholicConfessions of an Ex-GirlfriendConsider LoveCouch FictionCrispinCross CountryCruddyCrumpleCutCypherDaddy's GirlsDakotaDamageDancing After HoursDanger in High PlacesDanger! 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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.