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.

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.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Before 'Lincoln in the Bardo,' George Saunders wrote a short, essential book
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/Books/chapter-and-verse/2017/0221/Before-Lincoln-in-the-Bardo-George-Saunders-wrote-a-short-essential-book
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe