The secret philosophy at the heart of Magnificent Obsession is really not startling: doing good works without broadcasting them. Although Christian writer Louis Douglas was thinking of the teachings of Jesus, it’s not an idea exclusive to Christianity or unheard of before Magnificent Obsession’s publication in 1929. Yet this book was hailed by millions as eye-opening and inspiring.
Douglas slowly unfolds the “amazing” life-changing philosophy by which famous brain surgeon Wayne Hudson lived, handling it as a mystery that wealthy ne’er-do-well Robert Merrick solves and is changed by. After his own life is saved at the expense of Hudson’s, Bobby finds out that the surgeon had been secretly helping people. Trying to understand Hudson’s motivation, Bobby receives access to Hudson’s hidden journal, written in code. Bobby’s reward for cracking the code is to read passages about “paying it forward” and “personality projection”—thoughts he mocks at first but then starts living by. Bobby follows in Hudson’s footsteps as an anonymous do-gooder and a brain surgeon. He also falls in love with the surgeon’s beautiful young widow, and his pining for her may leave the reader wondering whether the book’s title is about the religious or the romantic obsession.
What the book has to recommend it is a nice thought that, if not original, bears repeating. On the minus side are dated characters, stilted language, and the equation of worldly success with spiritual growth.
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