This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett

Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter, by Peter Singer

I wanted to like this book by Peter Singer. I really did. I’d read about Singer regularly in books on politics and philosophy. He’s one of the foremost “public intellectuals” working in the English language these days, and offers truly challenging thought experiments that have created arguments rippling through a half dozen fields. He specializes is a kind of contrarian approach that can make one very uncomfortable. Why do we spend thousands of dollars to send a dying child to Disneyland when we could use the same amount of money to buy mosquito netting for hundreds of children in tropical areas? Why do we perceive a difference in three scenarios of a runaway train? (A child is on one track, five adults are on another. If the course of a train isn’t altered it will kill the adults. Why do we perceive a difference in letting the train continue, diverting it to kill the child, or pushing someone in the way to stop the train?) Why do we spend money on museums that could be spent to find a cure for cancer? Do we have a right to eat meat when it’s one of the chief causes of global warming? (He’s become a vegetarian for this specific reason.)

I wanted to be challenged and enlightened. I ended up bored and irritated. His question of allocation of resources always assumes that a. there are limited resources and b. that the physical result is always the preferable. In his worldview there’s no room for lightened spirits when there’s work to be done, and a billionaire donating to a museum must not have resources for other beneficial donations.

Most of these essays were written for a small journal with marginal editing. They rehash ideas in several different ways, rarely to any greater insight. I may look for something with a greater narrative arc to give him more of a chance but this collection was pretty dismal.

Compare this to Ann Patchett’s collection of her best magazine non-fiction. These are long, well-considered pieces on writing, running a book store, discovering opera in the land of the Grand Ol’ Opry, being a reluctant wife, traveling the west in an Airstream trailer. Each essay in the book has a level of openness and honesty that are rare. Every topic is approached from every imaginable angle. The articles are funny and heartbreaking, completely human, and the language is incredible.

I confess to coming to Ann Patchett way too late. I picked up a copy of Bel Canto and thought it was one of the best books I read last year. I think I confused her with Sandra Brown-type authors without ever having read a review of her work. She’s now a favorite author and I appreciate her that much more with this collection. This is a book I’ll read again just to get as much out of it as possible.