Ignore J.D. Vance and His Book and His Political Campaign
I used to be a librarian, so I pay attention to what books people are reading and what books are talking about.
I was also kind of an old-school snobby-about-reading-material librarian, so let me just say that I usually thought people were not actually reading or talking about the books I thought they should be reading.
Let me rephrase that. I’m all for people reading what they want, and if what they primarily want is to read what other people are reading so they can talk about that book with others, that’s great. But I also want people to read MORE — to find the books that aren’t national bestsellers or getting all the chit-chat on Twitter.
Spoiler alert: Those are usually better books anyway.
Who is J.D. Vance and what was his bestseller about?
So here’s the J.D. Vance story in a nutshell: J.D. Vance grew up in poverty in Appalachia, and then he wrote a memoir about it, Hillbilly Elegy, which went on to be THE nonfiction book to read of 2016 and was a huge national bestseller and was eventually made into a 2020 movie and also helped Vance launch his new political career.
Just lately there are a lot of articles about him floating around, saying things like how he’s changed and how “contemptible” he’s become for pandering to conservative and Republican Ohio voters (while simultaneously coming off as a condescending city type to those same voters).
As usual, the articles floating around in social media and elsewhere are not very nuanced.
Is J.D. Vance the worst person ever?
Has J.D. Vance really changed all that much from how he seemed when he wrote his memoir and talked about how he pulled himself up by his bootstraps and went to Harvard and gee whiz everyone should be able to do that?
So let me suggest this: Unless you are in J.D. Vance’s district in Ohio and have the chance to vote for or against him, I would just LOOK AWAY. Also, read his book if you must — it’s not long and he knows how to write and it never hurts to have someone else’s personal experience to mull over.
But, mainly? Please consider reading any of the following books, all in a similar subject area and style to Vance’s, and then go on your way, feeling like a better-read person.
What to read instead of “Hillbilly Elegy”
If you want a book about growing up poor in America even though your parents worked very hard:
Look no further than Sarah Smarsh’s very compelling memoir/history Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke In the Richest Country On Earth.
This was published in 2018, and is about Smarsh’s childhood in Kansas. The daughter of a teenage mother who was also the daughter of a teenage mother, Smarsh details an upbringing that was chaotic and which involved a lot of moving around, even though her parents were both hard workers (who mainly experienced bad luck and bad timing in their chosen jobs). Her parents eventually divorced and often relied heavily on family members to help care for their kids, while everyone struggled to maintain an economic foothold and hang on to any kind of healthy relationship.
This is how Smarsh starts her book: “”How can you talk about the poor child without addressing the country that let her be so? It’s a relatively new way of thinking for me. I was raised to put all responsibility on the individual, on the bootstraps with which she ought to pull herself up. But it’s the way of things that environment changes outcomes. Or, to put it in my first language: The crop depends on the weather, dudnit? A good seed’ll do ‘er job ’n’ sprout, but come hail ’n’ yer plumb outta luck regardless.”
If you want to learn more about why people in rural areas voted for Donald Trump:
For kind and yet still very astute red state/blue state political writing, you absolutely need to read Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War.
First published in 2008, this one predates Trump’s presidency by eight years, which means the author was very far-seeing indeed.
In this book, Bageant, who is originally from a conservative city in the Shenandoah Valley region of Virginia, returns to his roots (after wandering the world in what he himself describes as a more hippie-like fashion) and tries to understand why the residents of the area vote for wealthy Republican candidates while they themselves struggle with chronic health problems and worsening economic circumstances.
Bageant has been described as “blunt,” but I’d just call it honest, myself. He shows disdain both for those who are seemingly proud of their ignorance, but also for the richer upper class in his former hometown, who are only too happy to exploit what they call “cheap hillbilly labor.”
If you want to understand what is truly burying the poor and the middle class:
That is the cost of health “care” and insurance in America. Read Brian Alexander’s The Hospital: Life, Death, and Dollars in a Small American Town, published just this year, and learn about how people who WANT to work often aren’t able to because of debilitating health problems that are worsened by low-paying, non-unionized, not-really-including-benefits physical jobs offered by America’s elite (think warehouse workers employed by Jeff Bezos and all workers employed by John Menard, owner of the Menard’s chain of home improvement stores).
Alexander is a master of showing how business and political interests grind American workers, most of them in rural and non-coast cities, underneath their violent and rich feet; he is also the author of Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town.
If you want to read how hard poverty strikes a lot of different demographics very hard:
Housing and the lack of affordable housing are very big subjects right now, and if you’d like to start understanding those topics, you may want to try Matthew Desmond’s 2016 title Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City.
While Desmond pursued a graduate degree in sociology, he did “field work” in Milwaukee, meaning that he lived there while he researched the housing situation and evictions in the city. He shows the reader the worlds of the truly horrifically poor, whether they are black and white, working or not, drug-addicted or elderly (and many times some combinations of those and more attributes).
Desmond found that many residents paid 70–80% of whatever income they could accumulate, whether it was work salaries, government assistance, or a combination of both, solely to rent.
It’s considered a “sociology” book, but it’s very personal and very readable.
If you can’t handle one more bleak title on this list and want to end with a truly inspirational, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” memoir:
Okay, this one is going to seem like an odd choice, but you HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK. It is Debora Harding’s Dancing with the Octopus: A Memoir Of a Crime, and technically, it is True Crime.
Harding relates the story of how she was abducted and sexually assaulted when she was a very young teenager, and how it took her years to understand how her body and mind were traumatized by that assault (even though she had continued on with her life, found work, married, and had children).
If the assault weren’t bad enough, Harding also grew up in a home with a father whom she adored (but who was often traveling for work) and an emotionally distant and abusive mother whose care for her four daughters was erratic at best.
Why am I suggesting this book? Harding, like Vance, came from very poor circumstances. Like Vance, she came from a rural area (Nebraska). Unlike Vance, she did not get herself to Harvard, become a well-known venture capitalist with numerous tech bro ties, or try to start a political career.
What she did was much more inspiring: She tried to understand what had happened to her, what forces led her attacker to prey on her, how her father pretended or overlooked the abuse their mother was subjecting them to, but mostly…she tries to understand how she can reconcile all this and forgive and go on to live her life as peacefully and joyfully as she can.
Now THAT is inspiring.
Life is too short to read Hillbilly Elegy or any of the current media articles about J.D. Vance. Read all these books instead.