Books for America: Hillbilly Elegy

With 95 days until the election, let us continue looking at the 100 books every American should read. These write-ups will be short and not incredibly comprehensive looks at some books and novels that will help you become a better citizen. Check out all of the books that have been picked.

Let’s start by getting two things straight. The first is that our country has historically gone out of its way to favor the rural man over the urban man. The second is that the poor rural man often gets forgotten.

That point can get lost in J.D. Vance’s supremely well written “Hillbilly Ellegy” through no fault of the author’s.

At the risk of being trite, the urban poor are often purposefully left behind because of who they are while the rural poor are left behind because of who they aren’t.

Vance escaped Appalachia to make money as a venture capitalist and conservative writer.

In the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 rise in the republican ranks, people wanted to know who were Trump voters. They turned to Vance.

He himself, tells you he’s not trying to explain who trump voters are, but he’s trying to show the reader who are these societies that are left behind.

With brutal honesty, Vance shows you the realities of his home life and hometown.

He talks about an episode of “The West Wing” and how it relates to that place he cherishes.

In it, the fictional president debates whether he should push school vouchers (giving public money to schoolchildren so that they escape failing public schools) or instead focus exclusively on fixing those same failing schools. That debate is important, of course—for a long time, much of my failing school district qualified for vouchers—but it was striking that in an entire discussion about why poor kids struggled in school, the emphasis rested entirely on public institutions. As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.

Hillbilly Elegy

This passage has stuck with me since the day I read it.

If you believe that hard work pays off, then you work hard; if you think it’s hard to get ahead even when you try, then why try at all? Similarly, when people do fail, this mind-set allows them to look outward. I once ran into an old acquaintance at a Middletown bar who told me that he had recently quit his job because he was sick of waking up early. I later saw him complaining on Facebook about the “Obama economy” and how it had affected his life. I don’t doubt that the Obama economy has affected many, but this man is assuredly not among them. His status in life is directly attributable to the choices he’s made, and his life will improve only through better decisions. But for him to make better choices, he needs to live in an environment that forces him to ask tough questions about himself. There is a cultural movement in the white working class to blame problems on society or the government, and that movement gains adherents by the day.

Hillbilly Elegy

But Vance’s book isn’t just bouncing your head off the doldrums.

He lovingly recounts the fierce care his grandmother had for him. And he has whit in spades. At one point he talks about how he has never understood pajamas, pointing out that they are an item for the elite. In his youth, everyone slept in what they wore during the day.

Praise for Vance’s book caused some mild rebukes in a few liberal and conservative circles. To be honest, there were a few times when I didn’t buy all of his arguments. But the same could be said for several liberal books I posted – or will post – on this list.

What all those books had in common is that they made me think. I promise they’ll make you think, which will make you a better American. That’s what this whole exercise is about.

***

Previously, we discussed an important novel about big government. Up next, we’ll take a look at a book that spends time on an inner city.

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