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Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help Hardcover – September 29, 2015

4.2 out of 5 stars 44 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“[Strangers Drowning] really made me think about morality, doing good, the lengths some humans are capable of in terms of altruism, and my own limitations. This is such a thoughtful, philosophical book that doesn't beat you over the head with a message because the message is: Here are people, these are their stories, make of it what you can, but don't dare mock or demonize them. We are human because we are different and have different capabilities.”
—Sarah Weinman, Publishers Lunch Favorite Books of 2015 

“I can imagine Larissa MacFarquhar’s ‘Strangers Drowning’ being as wonderful to read a hundred years from now as it was this year. The book reports on extreme ‘do-gooders’—a favorite chapter looks at a couple who adopted 22 children—but its detail-oriented and nonjudgmental intelligence makes it at once morally complex and mythic, modern and timeless.”— Rivka Galchen, The New York Times Book Review   

“Fascinating…The keys to the book’s success are MacFarquhar’s exhaustive journalistic approach and her clear, concise writing…Strangers Drowning is a brilliant jumping-off point to explore where each of us stands morally.”—Chicago Tribune  

“MacFarquhar describes [the altruists’] motivations in elegant, empathetic terms…The stories resound with the universality of fables, events unfold at their own pace, and the overall tone of Strangers Drowning, with its panoramic view of actions and their consequences, seems to draw from the texts of psychology, philosophy, and religion in equal measure, evoking the case study, the thought experiment, and the parable.”—Bookforum 

“Engaging…MacFarquhar…writes full and nuanced profiles, often by letting her subjects speak for themselves. She doesn’t cast judgment on their ideals or their struggles to live up to them.”
Boston Globe

“MacFarquhar…tackles these questions with great intelligence and empathy…Thanks to MacFarquhar’s curiosity and insight, and her embrace of complexity and ambiguity in storytelling, these portraits don’t read at all like a secular version of ‘Lives of the Saints’…[They have a] richness and tenderness…with all their telling details, unexpected turns and wonderfully novelistic observations.”—Héctor Tobar, The New York Times Book Review

“MacFarquhar’s argument builds quietly, shown rather than told. The bibliography attests to the fact that she has immersed herself in the relevant literature but her reading is so subterranean that you hardly notice. Strangers Drowning is a book written in a deceptively simple and clear voice about people, about how morality lodges itself in a person not as an abstract idea, or even a value, but as a direction for life…MacFarquhar forgoes the knowing detachment of the interviewer and stays close to her subjects, narrating their lives in her own voice but in what seems to be as faithful a mode as possible…Its ultimate effect is impressive and, one senses, a matter of principle. To allow the do-gooders to explain themselves on their own terms is to give them what society has never quite managed — the benefit of the doubt.”—Financial Times
“One part modern-day Lives of the Saints, one part confirmation that this is no age for saints…Brilliant.”—Laura Miller, Slate

“MacFarquhar’s narrative alternates beautifully between profiles of individual do-gooders and this history of ideas that undermine their work. She returns us to the age-old questions about how to live, not by thinking in philosophical abstractions or hypothetical scenarios but through the lived experience of real people—their psychology, influences, relationships, triumphs, and shortcomings: the messy place where ethics actually lives.”—The New Republic
“Ms. MacFarquhar…has a vivid writing style, and her perspective is unfailingly compassionate…Her subjects emerge as fully human despite personal eccentricities, selfish tendencies and nonstandard ideas about how to live a moral life.”—Wall Street Journal

“Elegant, engaging, empathetic, and profoundly humane… Strangers Drowning is full of insights, inspiring and unsettling.”—Psychology Today
“Superb…Ms. MacFarquhar’s book…both streamlines and complicates the issues surrounding deep ethical scruples. She opens moral trapdoors you didn’t know were there. More interestingly, she opens ones you suspect she didn’t know were there, either. This writer does so many things well in ‘Strangers Drowning’ that it’s hard to know where to begin…[MacFarquhar’s profiles] are as taut and evocative as parables…[and] don’t swamp the inquisitive tone of her broader intellectual narrative…The author’s tone throughout ‘Strangers Drowning’ is that of a serious and wide-awake novelist. You sense a great deal of sifting below the surface of Ms. MacFarquhar’s sentences, a reserve of power and intellect drawn upon at will. If her book does not provoke and unsettle you, you may not have a pulse.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Thought-provoking…Such ethical urgency, with its aura of perfectionist virtue and saintly sanctimony, stirs ambivalence in most of us. If MacFarquhar thought she might overcome it, she’s too honest to pretend she did. These do-gooders aren’t moral models. But her discomfiting portraits deliver a humanizing surprise: Few of these altruistic souls nurse any illusion that they are exemplars.”—The Atlantic 

“In a series of sensitive case studies, acclaimed journalist MacFarquhar examines lives of the full-time do-gooders who give it their all and then some…MacFarquhar’s book is a careful meditation on what it means to fully commit to moral living—and whether the all-out commitments of this kind are, in the grand scheme of things, worth it.”—Los Angeles Magazine

“Gripping…The aim of the book is neither to urge readers to change their lives nor to suggest that do-gooders are deluded. Instead, MacFarquhar draws attention to a fact of life that we often prefer to sweep under the psychological rug: Sometimes we prioritize our moral duty to others, and sometimes we prioritize ourselves. Everyone draws that jagged line somewhere.”—Pacific Standard  

“Thoughtful and wide-ranging…[MacFarquhar] lucidly illustrates both the benefits and shortcomings of this ethical position by focusing on the lives of several do-gooders…MacFarquhar offers readers plenty of food for thought in understand­ing the motivations and compul­sions of those who sacrifice every­thing in pursuit of a noble cause.”—BookPage  

“Fascinating and terrifying portraits of saints and ministers of grace.”
“Gripping…A scrupulous study of people selflessly devoted to helping others…Engrossing and thought provoking.”
Publishers  Weekly
 “MacFarquhar's book--daringly conceived, brilliantly executed--may change not just how you see the world, but how you live in it.”
- Katherine Boo, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers
 “In this inspiring yet deeply unsettling book, we are confronted with goodness at its most extreme. These arresting anecdotes from the shadowland between altruism and masochism are told in glowing, evocative prose and with polemical urgency. Few books throw one’s personal moral universe into question, but this one does, and it does so powerfully and monumentally and with a near infinity of nuance and compassion.”
- Andrew Solomon, New York Times bestselling author of The Noonday Demon and Far From the Tree
"With the inquisitive mind of a philosopher, the observant eye of a reporter, and the ability to write like the finest novelist, Larissa MacFarquhar has created an extraordinary work of nonfiction. Strangers Drowning helps us not only to understand what it means to be good but also human. A profound and deeply original book, Strangers Drowning will hold you in its grip and not let you go.”
- David Grann, author of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes and The Lost City of Z
 “Larissa MacFarquhar has composed a compelling, lyrical saga of the saintly types that inspire both awe and puzzlement. These fascinating stories and Larissa MacFarquhar's own wise, funny meditations force you to inquire into your own sense of charity (or lack thereof). Easily the best book on both prescriptive and applied ethics I've read in a decade – mandatory reading for the examined life.”
- Mary Karr, author of Lit and The Liars’ Club
 “Larissa MacFarquhar is a beautiful writer, and Strangers Drowning is a beautiful, unique book, full of astonishing and sometimes wild tales of extraordinary altruism. MacFarquhar avoids sentimentality or simple lessons. She shows; she doesn't tell. Prepare for prose that's often like poetry – and for some remarkable portraits of the human spirit.”
- Cass R. Sunstein, Robert Walmsley University Professor, Harvard University, and coauthor of Nudge

About the Author

LARISSA MACFARQUHAR has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. Her subjects have included John Ashbery, Barack Obama, and Noam Chomsky, among many others. Previously she was a senior editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at The Paris Review. MacFarquhar lives in New York.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; F First Edition edition (September 29, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594204330
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594204333
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #77,073 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Marjorie Cunningham on October 2, 2015
Format: Hardcover
This non-fiction book takes an in-depth look at what motivates “do-gooders”, those who are extremely committed to helping others, often at the expense of their own loved ones. It’s an ambitious work and is broken down into chapters telling true stories of do-gooders, like the woman in her 80’s, who after a lifelong commitment to nursing others, begins to teach midwives and the man who donates his kidney to a stranger, along with the history of completely unselfish people and society’s perception of them through the years.

The books starts off with the thought experiment of whether you should save your mother drowning or two strangers. What number of strangers that you could save would it take to leave your mother to drown? Would two be enough or would it take twenty or twenty thousand? Or would you save your mother no matter how many other lives could be saved instead?

While everyone knows there are thousands of people in the world who are starving or dying, life would be intolerable if we cared about each of those people the way we care for our family members. How would we face each day? Should you feel guilty if you spend money to go to a movie when that money might have helped a starving child? When a person is a truly committed do-gooder, their survival and needs are secondary to those of others. Their own needs feel like selfishness and there is no room for wants or desires.

While each of the stories have their own merits, I also enjoyed reading about the history of do-gooders and society’s perception of them. At times do-gooders were looked upon as hypocrites and as doing good deeds just to appear virtuous, to get into heaven when they died or to make themselves feel better.
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Format: Hardcover
Strangers Drowning, Larissa MacFarquhar, author and narrator
The book addresses the do-gooders of the world, those who place the needs of others ahead of their own, those that want to bring compassion to everyone in need, those that want to save others regardless of the risk to themselves, those that do it instinctively and those that do it by choice. In short, there are several categories of do-gooders and she explains how all types of do-gooders are perceived and why. Some are ridiculed, some are pariahs, and some are occasionally honored and revered. The way they are viewed has changed over time. At one time they were abhorred as abnormal, unstable, needy, unbalanced, but today their behavior is more accepted and appreciated. Schadenfreude often played a role in judging them. Also, no one wanted Jiminy Cricket on their shoulders all the time, judging their ability to be “as good”, as they were. How much “do-gooding” was enough? The author describes all types, but concentrates on those with the ability to totally self-sacrifice even at the expense of family and friends which is at the extreme end of do-gooders. They are those that perceive their journey as noble, caring for those in greater need, greater in number, in greater pain. Throughout the book she asks a variation of this question: “Who would you save, your mother or two strangers?” In this way she segregates into separate groups, the types of do-gooders that exist. It is well researched with references, and well known scholars and professionals are quoted to back up conclusions, but none seemed hard and fast. I thought it was really well written, clear and easy to follow, but I still felt that it was a bit too scholarly in some ways and too much of an opinion piece in another.
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Format: Audio CD
I purchased this book to find where I was in the "Good" spectrum. I think it's an excellent book but really wish the author would hire someone else to read. THIS IS ONLY FOR THE AUDIBLE VERSION. The book is good--Buy it.

Why two stars?

I hate to complain about someone's voice. However, when you're purchasing an audio book, that is exactly what makes or breaks the entire experience. I primarily purchase audio books and have some good and bad. However, this is the first one I had to return. Again I feel terrible even saying this, but I hope the author reads this and hires another voice actor to read her work. I've listened to other books that have been read by the author like Jenny Laweson in the book "Let's Pretend This Never Happened." Not only was the book AMAZING, but she read it REALLY REALLY REALLY well. It was told like a story.

This book however was read like a lecture by Ben Stein. Well, maybe not that bad. It was just that it seemed like one of those teachers you had in college where they were there just to present the material and did so in a quick, bland, and seemingly monotone type of way that had very few pauses. The author does on rare occasions change her pitch to make it more exciting, however, it ends up being a bit scratchy as she doesn't have the range. This is why I believe she sticks with the monotone.

I can sympathize. I don't have much range myself and I know I would read it just as dry as she has. Again, I'm only saying this because it's an AUDIO book and I had to stop listening to it because I found it very difficult to comprehend. Some of the material was quite technical and between the tone, speed, and material, I had to spend a lot of time trying to concentrate on what she was saying and often found myself rewinding a few times for comprehension.

Thank you for the book.
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