The Tyranny of Merit, subtitled Can We Find the Common Good? was something of a disappointment to me. The writer, Michael J. Sandel, a philosophy professor at Harvard, put one of his classes on ethics online; I watched the entirety of it and enjoyed it very much, so was predisposed to like this little book. I already had some idea of what he meant by the “tyranny of merit.” What I was interested to read about were ways to find the common good.
But this book is written for those who have not yet been convinced that the meritocracy acts as a sort of tyranny, and 222 pages in the paperback edition are devoted to proving that thesis. The conclusion, Merit and the Common Good, comprises all of five pages and ends with a plea for a “less rancorous, more generous public life.” He does not, however, offer practical suggestions as to how to achieve this.
Demon Copperhead is the first Barbara Kingsolver book I have read, and I enjoyed it very much, in spite of what I can only call addiction porn. It’s written in the first person by a boy born in Appalachia to a drug-addicted mother and, after her death, raised in a series of nightmarish foster homes. Somehow, through all of this, he keeps his head and finds the straight path to what one can only presume will turn out to be happiness.
If you find this scenario implausible, I will clue you in to the secret. A secret that stares you in the face so implacably that I have no excuse whatsoever for missing it until I was informed of it in a review.
The entire novel is a rewrite of Dickens’ David Copperfield. A rewrite that is so true to the original that not only the action, but the names of the characters correspond. Here are a few. More can be found in the Wikipedia piece on the novel.
• Nance Peggot – (Clara Peggotty)
• Emmy – (Emily or Little Em'ly)
• Sterling Ford –. (James Steerforth)
• Mr and Mrs McCobb – (Wilkins Micawber and Emma Micawber)
• Betsy Woodall – (Betsey Trotwood)
• Angus – (Agnes Wickfield)
• Ryan Pyles – Also known as U-Haul. (Uriah Heep)
• Dori – (Dora Spenlow)
If Dickens’ novel showed you the evils that beset poor orphans in mid-19th century London, Kingsolver introduces you to the folks who became some of the first victims of the opioid epidemic, and even provides the professional pill pusher standing in for those who started it all.
It’s a good read, especially when you know what it’s all about. I don’t know why I didn’t figure it out sooner – been a long time since I read the original – but I did have a sense, as I went along, that I knew what was going to happen next.
But our main protagonist, David/Demon, is a captivating character on his own, and I suspect his narrative will carry you along with him, into the sorry depths of opioid addiction and the journey back. I don’t think you will regret it.