Books Chapter & Verse

Before 'Lincoln in the Bardo,' George Saunders wrote a short, essential book

As 'Lincoln in the Bardo' attracts widespread attention, now might be a good time to remember Saunders’ shortest book – 'Congratulations, by the Way.'

The slender "Congratulations, by the Way," may be Saunders's most important book.
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With “Lincoln in the Bardo,” George Saunders has published his longest book to date – an extended fictional narrative that departs from his usual literary form, the short story.

But as “Lincoln in the Bardo” attracts widespread attention with its quirky story about Abraham Lincoln’s grief for his departed son amid the characters who inhabit a Buddhist-inspired afterlife, now might be a good time to remember Saunders’ shortest book – a tiny volume, published in 2014, called “Congratulations, by the Way.”

Even with some padding – large type, plenty of white space, alternating pages filled with art – “Congratulations, by the Way” spans only about 50 pages, which isn’t surprising, since it’s the text of a brief convocation speech Saunders gave at Syracuse University. Within days after the speech was posted online, it had been shared more than a million times.

The advice Saunders gave to students was simple, yet profound. He confessed that after reviewing his life, what he most regretted were the opportunities he missed to be kind.

“I can look back and see that I’ve spent much of my life in a cloud of things that have pushed ‘being kind’ to the periphery,” Saunders told students. “Things like: Anxiety. Fear. Insecurity. Ambition. The mistaken belief that enough accomplishment will rid me of all that anxiety, fear, insecurity and ambition. The belief that if I can only accrue enough – enough accomplishment, money, fame – my neuroses will disappear....

Over the years I’ve felt: Kindness, sure – but first let me finish this semester, this degree, this book; let me succeed at this job, and afford this house, and raise these kids, and then finally, when all is accomplished, I’ll get started on the kindness. Except it never all gets accomplished. It’s a cycle that can go on ... well, forever.”

In a season touched by so much division, Saunders’s call to kindness seems more timely than ever. Here’s hoping that his longest book, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” will renew a spotlight on the shortest – but perhaps most important – book he’s ever written.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”