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Book review

‘A Path Appears’ by Nicholas Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn

MITCH BLUNT FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/Globe Freelance

“APath Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity” is a well thought-out book, which shouldn’t be surprising, written as it is by Pulitzer Prize-winning, married journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It starts out slow and steady, with a relentless litany of do-gooders, seemingly random stories of individuals who are on fire to help repair every manner of social injustice.

Structurally, the book’s approach is the equivalent of a great passing team in football opening a game plan not by throwing, but by pounding it out off-tackle four, five, even six plays in a row, setting up the space and opportunity to later unleash its strength. This gambit almost gets tedious, and it’s not until later that you begin to suspect that this was the point, the desired outcome: to bludgeon the reader into perceiving that what might previously have seemed exceptional could come to be seen as regular, if not quite yet a social norm.

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The ills described are legion. And social-justice groups cascade through the pages: Manufacturers of clean-burning fuel stoves in Third World countries, seeking to reduce deforestation, pulmonary disease, and air pollution; groups committed to battling fetal alcohol syndrome, sex trafficking, childhood malnutrition and poverty, malaria, clubfoot, cleft palate, sexual assault against children and women, AIDS, lack of potable water, illiteracy. There’s very much the feeling, in the profile of each organization, that there are fingers being stuck in the dike of the world.

Not to sound like an eco-bore or pedant, but I was a little surprised by the absence of the phrases global warming or climate change and the lack of mention of the nonprofits working to mitigate that crisis, which will exercise topographic democracy in its devastating effects of flood and salination of water tables, yet will harm the poor disproportionately. Consider it noted, here.

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The point, however, of “A Path Appears” is not to list specific organizations or issues, but to discuss the historical, cultural, social, and even biological aspects of philanthropy and service.

It’s at the end of part one that I realized the reason for the abundance of examples: Kristof and WuDunn want to present the case that volunteering is more widespread than many of us might realize. And in part two, they urge the readers: You can do it.

So much volunteering, so much giving, so much passion: It all starts to feel a little like work. By the midway point of the book there is a not-very-flattering impulse to thumb through some of the chapters; will the unhappiness never end?

And yet: The title harkens to hope. What path? Where does it go? Implicitly, I think, we understand that it might get us out of here, wherever that is. Implicitly, we understand — even before the anecdotes — that’s a tough place. Who among us does not know that strange feeling of occasionally looking around at the bright world of commerce, and our daily comings and goings, and suddenly realizing: This is smoke and mirrors, a myth, there is no center and no foundation, and cannot last? We read on.

Not all who would help lead us out of the chaos of injustice are to be trusted. At the end of part two, the authors, with admirable responsibility, discuss the presence of charlatans in the nonprofit movement. Some bad apples are mentioned: groups that purport to do great good but which use almost all funds to cover overhead and provide little if any aid.

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From this, creative business models of for-profit groups are examined, and the value of morality in nonprofits, as well as a frank business discussion of the challenges and opportunities for corporations to become more socially responsible, and the reasons for doing so.

The differential between charismatic or sexy giving, and “merely” effective giving, is noted: Sometimes the addition of zinc to a population’s diet can change a community in amazing ways.

Subtly, in part two, we realize as readers that we’re pulling for the givers; dots are being connected. We start to align ourselves with the determined do-gooders of part one. And in part three, like excellent salespeople, Kristoff and WuDunn explain the neurobiology of giving, presenting it as not just noble, but extremely gratifying to the giver. Included here is a chapter, “Survival of the Kind,” in which they quote Stanford psychology professor Dacher Keltner, who, in their words, “argues that humans are a hodgepodge of competing impulses, perhaps 40 percent benevolent and 60 percent selfish.”

“We’re totally altruistic,” Keltner says, “and we will kill infants to survive . . . We’re genocidal, and we are charitable.”

Kristof and WuDunn report that a gene for giving might exist, and that further, the expressions of this gene might be contagious in a population. Fascinating social studies demonstrate how malleable this gene’s expression can be. Generosity exists as the ever-present shadow to selfishness.

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“A Path Appears” is an exhaustive though not exhausting profile of giving, with surprising guidance — indeed, coaching — on how to be an effective giver. It’s good strong journalism, researched powerfully. It does not hide its bias or objectives, but neither does it browbeat the reader, or succumb to using the easy manipulation of guilt. Upon finishing the book, readers are likely to experience an uneasy state of stimulation and find themselves willing to do something in the world, unconcerned by questions of scale, but instead, to simply become more engaged, and in that, alive.


Rick Bass is the author of over 30 books of fiction and nonfiction and lives in Montana.