Within a month of its publication in January 2008, This Republic of Suffering sold 35,000 copies and reached 7th on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list and 30th on the Amazon.com bestseller list, according to an article in The Boston Globe--remarkable sales for an academic title about a grim historical subject. What could account for readers' interest? It could be that Faust recently had been appointed president of Harvard, the first woman to serve in that position. However, it also could be that the book provides a humanistic view of the American Civil War, not just an account of who won and why, but insight into the universal topic of what Faust calls "the work of death." In her Preface she writes, "It is work to die, to know how to approach and endure life's last moments. Of all living things, only humans consciously anticipate death: the consequent need to choose how to behave in its face--to worry about how to die--distinguishes us from other animals. The need to manage death is the particular lot of humanity." She offers insight into the irony that a war fought over the South's bid to secede from the United States created a stronger, more centralized union. We all, North and South, were united by the sacrifice of that war.
A theme for this year's discussions is Malcolm Gladwell's theory of success outlined in his book Outliers: The Story of Success. In what ways had our young nation practiced "the work of death"? And in what ways was it the right cultural moment for our union to succeed?