Best of: George Saunders on Kindness in a Cruel World

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We’re taking a week off from releasing new episodes, so today I wanted to re-up one of my favorite episodes of the show, a conversation with fiction writer George Saunders that covers much more than just his writing.

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.

Recommendations:

"Red Cavalry" by Isaac Babel

"Stamped from the Beginning" by Ibram X. Kendi

"Dispatches" by Michael Herr

"Patriotic Gore" by Edmund Wilson

"In Love with the World" by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

"Loving; Living; Party Going" by Henry Green

"Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey" by Hayden Carruth

"Tropic of Squalor" by Mary Carr

"They Lift Their Wings to Cry" by Brooks Haxton

"The Hundred Dresses" by Eleanor Estes and Louis Slobodkin

"Caps for Sale" by Esphyr Slobodkina

You can find a transcript of this episode here and more episodes of "The Ezra Klein Show" at nytimes.com/ezra-klein-podcast, and you can find Ezra on Twitter @ezraklein.

Thoughts? Guest suggestions? Email us at ezrakleinshow@nytimes.com.

“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Rogé Karma, Jeff Geld and Annie Galvin; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld.

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