Tracy Kidder talks about Paul Farmer and the power of altruism in the face of chaos

    People sat side by side along the walls in a packed Harris Hall on Thursday to listen as journalist Tracy Kidder recounted his experience chronicling the life of Dr. Paul Farmer — the Harvard-trained physician who reinvented the public health system in Haiti through his non-profit organization, Partners in Health.

    In conjunction with the Center for Civic Engagement, Kidder discussed his book on Farmer, Mountains beyond Mountains — this year’s One Book, One Northwestern selection. He told more than 500 students, faculty and community members to take Farmer’s example to heart and apply it to their lives.

    One Book, One Northwestern project coordinator Nancy Cunniff said the talk was streamed in two other rooms for viewers unable to find seats in the auditorium.

    “Not everybody can be Paul Farmer, but his story, from Duke to Partners in Health, is a story students are interested in being their own story,” CCE director Dan Lewis said. “If you study lives, that makes it easier to live your own life in a more conscious and intelligent way.”

    There is such a thing as effective altruism. The way I think of this, I still read the paper — New York Times, Boston Globe — and some mornings I wish I hadn’t bought it.

    Kidder sat down with North by Northwestern before his speech at Harris Hall Thursday to talk about his book, give advice and reminisce about his time at Northwestern.

    Back in ’95, you were the writer in residence at Northwestern. How does it feel to be back?

    It’s nice because I have so many friends. It’s funny. At first, I didn’t recognize the place, which was a little disconcerting [laughs]. Somehow, it’s sort of come back to me. Last night, the person who has been driving me around took me to the Homestead, where we lived. I remember very vividly my wife saying, “This is nice.” But after the lunch, she said, “This is like living on a shelf.” [laughs]. I love Chicago.

    So how did you feel when One Book, One Northwestern chose Mountains beyond Mountains?

    I was really pleased for completely selfish reasons. I have a lot of friends here [at Northwestern]. Several writers like Stu Dybek, Reg Gibbons, Alex Kotlowitz, are all old friends of mine. Reg, from the time I was here, and Stu Dybek, from years and years ago; he’s really one of my best friends. And Morty Schapiro is a friend who was extremely kind to a couple of semi-adopted members of my family when he was at Williams.

    I have fond memories of this place. It’s a great university. I hadn’t planned on 30 below with the wind chill this morning. Man, I come from New England, and it’s cold. I know Evanston to be pretty cold. I can remember walking to class — I swear it was the beginning of May — with my mittens on, ya know? For writers, these things [speaking events] are wonderful. One of the things it has done is it connects me with a generation, you might say. It also connects the academy with living writers, which is certainly good, at least, for writers. I don’t want to sound too mystical, but there’s something else about that, something useful.

    What’s your favorite book?

    The answer has changed over the years, of course. I think right now if I had to say one book, it would be Moby Dick. I was thinking of a book if I were stranded on a desert island that I could read and re-read. If I could have a book of all of Shakespeare’s plays, I think I’d take that.

    What message can Northwestern students take from the story behind Mountains beyond Mountains?

    I can’t put it in a couple of words. There is such a thing as effective altruism. The way I think of this, I still read the paper — New York Times, Boston Globe — and some mornings I wish I hadn’t bought it. It seems as though the world is completely governed by violence and chaos and there’s no hope in the end. But the fact there are effective counterforces and people that are determined to do something, like Paul Farmer, like Partners in Health and all his colleagues, like Deo. It’s not that I think these counterforces are going to win. But just the fact that they are there, I find, makes the world seem less bleak.


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