Quick quiz: what is a “Samaritan?”

If you answered “a person who selflessly does a good deed,” you are wrong. A Samaritan is simply a person from Samaria, a mountainous region of the Holy Land between Judea and Galilee — more or less what we now call the West Bank of Israel. The ancient Samaritans had a lot in common with the ancient Jews, but they weren’t on the same team, so to speak. Or perhaps it’s better to say they were on the same team (the Abrahams) but were on different shifts.

Put it this way; when the Parable of the Good Samaritan was written in the first century A.D. the idea of a Samaritan doing a good deed for a non-Samaritan (in this case a Jew) was a bit unusual. Those were very politically, culturally, and religiously loaded days in the Holy Land (not unlike today), so there was not a lot of trust between people of different tribes. So one of the key points of the parable is that one should do good deeds for everyone, even those who are “others.”

In that case, the Samaritan was an “other,” and he did a good deed for a Jew. Jesus, himself a Jew, told this parable as a way of illustrating that even those questionable “others” can do good deeds. But the Samaritan was not a “Samaritan” because he was good. It was because he was from Samaria. The fact that he was good made him a good Samaritan, which does not exclude the possibility of there being loads of bad Samaritans.

It’s as if I wrote a parable about a New Yorker doing a good deed for a Quebecer. It would be the Parable of the Good New Yorker. Naturally, that parable would not imply that every New Yorker is good. More importantly, it would not imply that any good person should be referred to as a “New Yorker!”

And yet I see and hear, on a regular basis, people referring to someone who does a good deed as a “Samaritan.” I hear things like “I had a flat tire and a Samaritan came along and helped me fix it,” or “If it wasn’t for that Samaritan I’d still be down that well!” Really? A Samaritan — a person from the Levant, a old biblical guy in a robe and sandals — came along and fixed your tire?

I think not. However, if you said “I had a flat tire and a Good Samaritan came along and helped me fix it,” or “If it wasn’t for that Good Samaritan I’d still be down that well!” then you would not be making an error. People would understand that by “Good Samaritan” you mean someone like the man in the parable of the Good Samaritan. But when you just say “Samaritan,” all you mean is some dude from Samaria!

Parable of the Good New Yorker

Reading List: Books I Read in 2009

As is my annual tradition since 2004, I present to you the list of books I read in the previous year (in this case, 2009). They are listed by author, in decending alphabetical order. The ones that really stuck with me are highlighted.

  • House of Meetings, by Martin Amis
  • The Wasted Vigil, by Nadeem Aslam
  • Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin
  • Let it Come Down, by Paul Bowles
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain
  • That Summer in Paris, by Morely Callaghan
  • The Loved and the Lost, by Morley Callaghan
  • A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr
  • The Favorite Game, by Leonard Cohen
  • Coffee with Hemingway, by Kirk Curnutt
  • Burma Chronicles, by Guy Delisle
  • Shenzhen, by Guy Delisle
  • Ministry of Fear, by Graham Greene
  • The Tenth Man, by Graham Greene
  • A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Fifth Column and Four Stories of the Spanish Civil War, by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill
  • Crow Lake, by Mary Lawson
  • Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis
  • The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham
  • Breakable You, by Brian Morton
  • Coming Up for Air, by George Orwell
  • Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell
  • Lush Life, by Richard Price
  • Paul in the Country, by Michel Rabagliati
  • Everyman, by Philip Roth
  • Gomorrah, by Roberto Saviano (translated by Virginia Jewiss)
  • My Dinner with Andre (screenplay), by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory
  • Chef, by Jaspreet Singh
  • Night Train to Turkistan, by Stuart Stevens
  • Consider the Lobster, by David Foster Wallace
  • Young Hearts Crying, by Richard Yates

That’s 32 books, 23 of which are categorized as fiction, three memoirs, three “other” non-fiction, and three “graphic” novels (all of which are fiction/memoir hybrids). The alarming thing is that only one of them was written by a woman.

I don’t plan my reading with any particular agenda in mind, but I do like to keep things varied; to read authors I haven’t read before, to mix up fiction and non-fiction, and to get different perspectives. But this is my worst male to female ratio yet. I’m not alone in this; it’s been a bad decade for women writers, according to this recent editorial in the Washington Post and this follow-up analysis on

Another notable thing about my reading list — and this was not intentional — is the number of older books. It was something of a 20th century retrospective:

  • Three books from the 1920s.*
  • Four books from the 1930s.**
  • Three books from the 1940s.
  • Three books from the 1950s.
  • One book from the 1960s.*
  • Four books from the 1980s.
  • One book from the 1990s.**
  • 13 books from the 2000s.

* Morely Callaghan’s That Summer in Paris was published in 1963, but it’s a memoir of the 1920s and is entirely “of” the 1920s. The same can be said of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which was published posthumously in 1964. Interestingly, both books cover the same basic ground, with Callaghan’s memoir being, essentially, a memoir of knowing Hemingway in Paris in the 1920s.

** Hemingway’s The Fifth Column and Four Stories of the Spanish Civil War was published in 1998 but the stories were written in the 1930s and possibly the 1940s. Graham Greene’s The Tenth Man was written in 1942 and then forgotten about. It was found, and published, in 1985.

If you think that’s a lot of reading and you wish you could keep up, consider Julien Smith of In Over Your Head; he read more than a book a week in 2009, and managed to co-write and publish one too! He has thoughtfully written this blog post that explains how you too can read a book a week in 2010 (but he left out the part about writing one).