If you checked your calendar today, you know it’s December 10. For some today is just any other day in December — not Christmas, not the winter solstice, not New Year’s Eve, not Hanukkah. But for fans of George Saunders (and fans of good fiction, in general), today is special because it shares a name with the title of what is arguably the best book published in 2013: Tenth of December .
The book came out earlier this year alongside a bold New York Times Magazine article titled “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” And though book didn’t end up winning the National Book Award, this short story collection definitely has staying power because its philosophy of unflinching kindness — one Saunders has delivered in other forms throughout the year — makes it the kind of book people can’t help but love.
Kindness. Sure, it’s a message we’ve heard over and over again since Kindergarten, perhaps even earlier. And it’s a message we’ve often heard delivered somewhat patronizingly, or perhaps unrealistically, in a way that doesn’t seem to recognize how difficult it can be to be kind in everyday life. Because sometimes you know you should be kind, but you just don’t want to, because the other person is obnoxious or unkind herself. Because when someone cuts you off in traffic or pushes you out of the way on the metro, you just really don’t want to be kind sometimes. You might want to shoulder him back or yell or silently wish all sorts of evils.
But what makes Saunders’ variation of the “be kind” prescription different, as I wrote earlier this year at PolicyMic, is its modesty. As suggested by his popular Syracuse Commencement speech and an interview he gave to The New Yorker, Saunders knows how hard acting with kindness can be. Being kind is a huge commitment, because, as he said in his speech, “It starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include… well, everything.” And he knows that failures of kindness are unavoidable, and he knows that it is difficult to structure one’s life around a primary goal of “being kind,” since unfortunately our society doesn’t really function on that basic principle. And so he says, “Do all the other things, the ambitious things ...but as you do, to the extent that you can, err, in the direction of kindness.”
Err, in the direction of kindness. How inspiringly limited a goal. It makes you feel like you might be able to do it, because while you know you’ll never be Mother Teresa, a life in the direction of kindness is one you could possibly live.
This phrase, “err, in the direction of kindness,” is the animating idea behind many of the stories included in Tenth of December. There is, for example, the microfiction “Sticks,” a story of a man who ignores his kids but carefully and lovingly administrates to a scarecrow in his yard. He’s like a character Clint Eastwood might play, one who never, ever apologizes. But just before this man dies, he plants sticks around the main poll to symbolize his children. He strings rope between the big stick and little sticks, and hangs apology notes on them. The children ignores this, though, seeing it as too little too late, and they sell the house to new owners who bulldoze the poll. So there is a redemption for this man. It may not be a full one. His kids may not feel satisfied, but as a reader, it’s hard not to be affected by his effort to make amends, since though incomplete, it was the very most he could do.
It’s moments like this that earn Tenth of December a spot on the shelf of “Great American Literature.” But more importantly, perhaps, it’s what makes the book worth your precious time, because after you’ve read this, it’ll be harder to hate the next person who wrongs you — now it won't be easy to trade anger for empathy, but it will be a little easier. And that, though a small thing, is kindness.
Read the Tenth of December 's eponymous story in full at The New Yorker.