Like a lot of people this year, I've availed myself of a few different excellent library systems and gotten a lot of reading done. I thought for an end-of-year treat, I'd share the books I'd recommend and what makes them worth reading. And wouldn't you know it, my reading just happens to sort of self-sift into twelve different subject areas, so it's twelve days of reading! Each day's recommendations newsletter will clock in at 600 words or less, so you can gulp this quick bite when you need a minute to yourself. Enjoy giving your Libby app a vigorous workout or making some independent bookseller very happy.
THE LAND OF LACK OF OPPORTUNITY
The Atlantic Monthly produces a lot of good journalism but every once in a while they seem like they're running something just to whip up a little light class panic.
Take the Ruth Shalit Barrett piece on how competitive parents pushed their children into niche sports to boost their kids' odds of getting into elite colleges -- a piece that seemed designed in a lab to stoke fears about inadequate parenting, unfair college admissions, and multigenerational status loss.
That piece was part rubbernecking, part inquiry: How can you make sure your child doesn't slide down the greased fireman's pole that is life in these modern United States?
A better question to ask might be: How does this kind of class privilege hurt American society as a whole? Elizabeth Currid-Halkett theorizes in The Sum of Small Things:
The aspirational class members make decisions and establish norms that have far more pernicious outcomes for society than did previous leisure-class consumerism … Their investments in education, health, retirement, and parenting ensure the reproduction of status (and often wealth too) for their offspring in a way that no material good can.
I thought about those pernicious outcomes when reading Jonathan Metzl's Dying of Whiteness, a book that makes the convincing case that racism is a public health problem. He lays out his thesis early on:
White backlash politics gave certain white populations the sensation of winning, particularly by upending the gains of minorities and liberals; yet the victories came at a steep cost. When white backlash policies became laws, as in cutting away health care programs and infrastructure spending, blocking expansion of health care delivery systems, defunding opiate-addiction centers, spewing toxins into the air, or enabling guns in public spaces, the result was—and I say this with the support of statistics detailed in the chapters that follow—increasing rates of death.
And then the rest of the book details all the needless deaths people are consigning themselves to so long as they maintain the fiction that their deaths are proof of innate white superiority.
I also thought about those pernicious outcomes with Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's examination of his childhood community, Yamhill, Oregon -- how so many children he went to school with grew into adults who often suffered before becoming one of the so-called "deaths of despair."
In his book, Kristof notes that his family life was significantly different than his classmates': his parents fostered an environment where learning and reading were valued. He doesn't really explore this point, but Jessi Streib does in Privilege Lost: Who Leaves the Upper Class and Why They Fall.
Sociologist Streib frames her findings around Pierre Bourdieu's theory of habitus -- social structures like class are reproduced by individuals via the habits, skills, and dispositions they learn and pass along -- and finds that kids drop their parents' class narrative when they're short on either resources or the narrative reinforcing their sense of identity qua class position.
Kristof is unsparing of the policy failures that he thinks led to the ravages of our smallest and most rural communities. By contrast, Monica Hesse's American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land is less policy-driven and more straight reporting on a remote, strapped Eastern Shore community grappling with serial arson. Hesse's greatest strength is moving back from research studies and policy, and reporting on matters of the heart:
By the numbers, Accomack could look like a desolate place to live. The Opportunity Index, a nonprofit measurement of sixteen different indicators of success in every county in America, gives it a forty-three out of one hundred. But numbers can be misleading. To residents, statistics could not account for the deep feeling of belonging that came from being able to find your surname in three hundred-year-old county records. They couldn’t account for how clean the air felt and how orange the sun was setting over the Chesapeake Bay. How do you calculate fish fries in the backyard, kiddie pools in the front yard, and unfettered views of a thousand stars in the night sky? So much of life is intangible, and places don’t feel like they’re disappearing to the people who are living there.
The Atlantic ultimately retracted the whole "Elites in Connecticut are freaking out about sports" article after reporters found that Shalit Barrett was up to the same journalistic malpractices she had been pulling since the early 1990s.
Yet one thing that stuck with me from the whole thing was how utterly indifferent the article's subjects, the writer and the Atlantic's editors seemed to be to a question that all of these books asked and answered to different degrees: What is the cost to our fellow citizen when we hoard capital and opportunity -- and who will pay when that bill comes due?
BOOKS MENTIONED IN THIS NEWSLETTER
The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land, Monica Hesse
Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn