Reading List: Hillybilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

“I don’t believe in epiphanies. I don’t believe in transformative moments, as transformation is harder than a moment.” –pp173

“I’m not saying ability doesn’t matter. It certainly helps. But there’s something powerful about realizing that you’ve undersold yourself–that somehow your mind confused lack of effort for inability. This is why, whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, “The feeling that our choices don’t matter.” ” –pp177

“The incredible optimism I felt about my own life contrasted starkly with the pessimism of so many of my neighbors. Years of decline in the blue-collar economy manifested themselves in the materials prospects of Middletown’s residents. The Great Recession, and the not-great recovery that followed, had hastened Middletown’s downward trajectory. But there was something almost spiritual about the cynicism of the community at large, something that went much deeper than a short-term recession. … Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream–a steady wage. … [If] G-d was the United States of America, then many people in my community were losing something akin to a religion. The tie that bound … my neighbors, that inspired them in the way my patriotism had always inspired me, had seemingly vanished.”–pp188 – 190

I’d describe this book as a charismatic read. It was colorful. That said, I disagreed with some of J.D. Vance’s implications. (Perhaps my interpretations were incorrect.) I disagree that the Democratic party is no longer the party of the working class, and I believe that taxes can create an important pool of money for social safety net programs, including SNAP, medicaid, and other welfare programs. I think that even “hillbillies” benefit from white privilege. I do agree with Vance that our definition of family is perhaps too small to accommodate contemporary family structures that are disjointed through migration, incarceration, or drug abuse. Overall, I appreciate the community portrait that Vance painted with compassion, and the room for reflection it created.


Edit: Meryl Steep’s Golden Globes win acceptance speech briefly ran parallel to why I think this is an important read. She said, “an actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us, and let you feel what that feels like.” The more we understand each other, the better.

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