Book Review: How to Be Good by Nick Hornby

As a philosophy major in college, I wish I had read this book a lot sooner. It approaches the question of good vs bad in a rather hilarious way. Of course, I didn’t laugh the entire time that I read it, as some parts are quite dark and make you sit and think for a minute. This is the third book I have read by Nick Hornby, besides his novels About a Boy and Slam, and How to Be Good never fails to satisfy me. It’s about this couple named Katie and David who are struggling to maintain a happy life with their two kids, Tom and Molly. They are a middle class couple who both have stable jobs: Katie is a doctor and David is an angry news columnist. But there is one problem: Katie had an affair with a man named Stephen, and now David has to deal with not just his stressful job but his wife cheating on him. However, David goes through this spiritual change through the encouragement of his spiritual doctor DJ Good News. David then quits his job and decides he is going to have everyone on his block, including him and his family, bring in someone on the streets to live with them. At first, everyone on the block is skeptical, but then Monkey, the homeless kid who the family takes in, turns out to be a good guy and even gets back the possessions of one couple on the block whose adopted homeless person stole from them. While Tom and Katie think David and GoodNews are being ludicrous, Molly sides with David and becomes self-righteous. Katie begins to question whether her work as a doctor is as morally sound as the work David and GoodNews are doing with the homeless, but finds out that their plan to do good backfires and they lose hope in humanity.

This novel wrestles with the question of what does it truly mean to be a “good person.” Katie becomes a doctor because she wants to help people, but every day that she works with patients they are not happy. However, when GoodNews intervenes, people start taking his work seriously even though he lacks the qualifications to be a doctor and tries to “treat” people’s medical problems by giving them head massages instead of medicine. Katie eventually realizes that she cannot please everyone and that just because one isn’t doing what David does does not necessarily mean one cannot do good in life. In fact, I believe that if you truly want to do good in life, you should start with your family and friends. In Buddhism, we have a term called “human revolution”, which means that each of us can change the world and foster world peace by changing our attitude and striving to be the best at our workplaces, in our schools, at home. Naturally when we do this we become happy, and we naturally encourage others around us to share in that happiness. There are also the terms “relative happiness” and “absolute happiness”. Relative happiness is defined by material things: great grades, great college, wonderful spouse, your dream job, the nice car, anything that brings you joy in that moment. However, relative happiness is fleeting, because if that thing or person leaves you, breaks or gets destroyed in some way, you feel bad you no longer have it and you sink back into despair. Or even if those things still exist in your life, over time you may find yourself wishing for a better job, a better car, better food, etc. and so you attach your happiness to those things. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t want nice things; we’re human, we go through stuff, we deserve to have hot water, a nice meal, access to Netflix. However, when we define our lives only by the stuff we have and stop valuing others in our life, we feel empty inside. Absolute happiness, however, is a happiness that you feel while you go through struggles in life. Katie doesn’t have the perfect life, but she comes to terms with its imperfections. Life is messy and many times you will cry until your eyes hurt. But I have personally found that the times I remember the most are the times when I challenged myself to my limits and conquered something so seemingly impossible, and over time I laugh when I look back at those times, and I even cry tears of appreciation that I went through that time so that I could learn what I was capable of.

The novel also makes a great point about loving the ones you are with. One night David and GoodNews call people they wronged in the past to apologize and ask forgiveness so that they don’t have to feel guilty and burdened by the past. For David, the person he called was a kid he bullied years ago, and for GoodNews it was his sister Cantata for reasons I am still not clear about (something to do with a poster of Duran Duran frontman Simon LeBon). GoodNews, unlike David, ends up cussing out his sister when she refuses to forgive him and hangs up. Even when Katie tries to console GoodNews he still says that he feels like a failure for what he did to her. Katie realizes that no matter how much she tries to convince him he isn’t a failure, he did in fact mess up. She wonders

who are these people, that they want to save the world and yet they are incapable of forming proper relationships with anybody? As GoodNews so eloquently puts it, it’s love this and love that, but of course it’s so easy to love someone you don’t know, whether it’s George Clooney or Monkey. Staying civil to someone with whom you’ve ever shared Christmas turkey–now, there’s a miracle.

“How To Be Good”, Hornby, pp. 275

I have found from personal experience that even as a social justice activist, I need to be a human being and look out for my family and friends while also being an activist. There are lots and lots of problems in the world: poverty, suicide bombings, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, white nationalism, global warming, the list goes on (why do you think there’s a Good News section in your Microsoft Newsfeed? Life is tough and we all could use some acts of compassion once in a while). However, as I am not God, I cannot solve all of the world’s problems. But what I can control is my outlook on life. I can choose to value my current friendships, my family ties, and having such ties grounds my approach to activism. Sure, working at a coffeeshop after college wasn’t equivalent to being the CEO of the International Monetary Fund, or being the star onstage playing the Eduord Lalo Cello Concerto for a climate change festival (although I would actually love to do this someday, to be honest), or bring principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic. But if anything, it was this: a way to bring home money and pay my bills so I can in fact afford to pursue my music activities and charitable pursuits. In order to take care of others, I had to take care of myself, which meant taking care of my finances, saving money for myself, getting rid of any debt, and spending time with family and friends. When I was in college, I invested a lot of my rage in theses about the factories polluting the predominantly black low income Altgeld Gardens in Chicago. I threw myself in my papers on the Harlem Renaissance, police brutality, and the ethics of freegans.

Yet I had quit my job at the local daycare because I felt this work was more important, when the reality is that other kids had to work while studying so they could send home money to an ailing parent or provide for their kid. I wasn’t focused on the preschoolers I needed to show up for every day as part of my work study, I wasn’t focused on taking care of my finances, I was solely concerned with my grades. And while I don’t regret my college experience and appreciate even just going to college, I will say that I took a lot of things for granted, like thinking I could survive each waking day after staying up studying until 2 am to polish the perfect two page essay for that medieval philosophers class, or the times I left my phone off and didn’t call my family to check in on them. Like Katie said, it is easier to value someone outside of our immediate environment, and if we can’t treasure the people closest to us while we are out saving the world, we may end up regretting that we didn’t spend more time with them. I know I cannot speak for everyone, but this has just been my experience, so even if I go to graduate school because I want to study some noble thing and go on to make big contributions to society (because, to be honest, I want to do this), I still need to value my loved ones so that when they pass away (as I will, too, someday, like everyone and everything on this planet) I will look back on the time I spent with them with a sense of deep gratitude rather than wishing I could have spent more time with them.

Reading How to Be Good taught me that taking care of yourself isn’t selfish, and it doesn’t mean you did something bad for society. And doing acts of kindness is a good thing; I would never want to say it was something people should stop doing. I myself remember doing an acts of kindness project for a class I took in high school, and it was so much fun because I had to do it anonymously. However, it’s important to have a healthy relationship with yourself and your boundaries so that you can carry that healthy self-esteem in your relationships and in broader terms your work for world peace. This novel was a New York Times bestseller when it came out almost two decades ago, and I can see why. I finished it in just a couple of days, it was that good.

How to Be Good. Nick Hornby. 2001. 305 pp.

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