George Saunders on Kindness, Capitalism and the Human Condition

02.19.2021 - By The Ezra Klein Show

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George Saunders is one of America’s greatest living writers. He’s the author of dozens of critically acclaimed short stories, including his 2013 collection, “Tenth of December”; his debut novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo,” won the 2017 Booker Prize; and his nonfiction work has empathy and insight that leave pieces from more than a decade ago ringing in my head today. His most recent book, “A Swim in A Pond in the Rain,” is a literary master class built around seven Russian short stories, analyzing how they work, and what they reveal about how we work.

I’ve wanted to interview Saunders for more than 15 years. I first saw him talk when I was in college, and there was a quality of compassion and consideration in every response that was, well, strange. His voice doesn’t sound like his fiction. His fiction is bitingly satirical, manic, often unsettling. His voice is calm, kind, gracious. The dissonance stuck with me.

Saunders’s central topic, literalized in his famous 2013 commencement speech, is about what it means to be kind in an unkind world. And that’s the organizing question of this conversation, too. We discuss the collisions between capitalism and human relations, the relationship between writing and meditation, Saunders’s personal editing process, the tension between empathizing with others and holding them to account, the promise of re-localizing our politics, the way our minds deceive us, Tolstoy’s unusual theory of personal transformation, and much more.

What a pleasure this conversation was. So worth the wait.


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