This year’s One Read selection, “Nomadland” by Jessica Bruder, explores the lives of people left out of, or let down by, our financial system. Though their stories are often rooted in misfortune, they also display resilience, ingenuity and a sense of community. Bruder’s book, which started as a cover story for Harper’s Magazine called “The End of Retirement,” shows us a new 21st century iteration of migrant workers who are often older and retired. With their options limited by circumstance, they choose to live in RVs and retrofitted vans as they follow work opportunities across the country. Bruder buys her own van and ventures out with them, chasing temporary jobs in national parks, Amazon fulfillment centers and beet fields. The plight of these Americans might remind you of the Okies in “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, and there are other excellent books that explore similar territory. If “Nomadland” whets your appetite, here are some suggestions for further reading.
While Steinbeck’s account of suffering during the Great Depression is fictional, novelist James Agee paired up with photographer Walker Evans in 1936 to document the real everyday lives of impoverished sharecropper families. The result was “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” It is a lyrical work of nonfiction, and landmark work of photojournalism, that vividly documents these lives with dignity and compassion.
Many of the subjects of “Nomadland” are in their position because of fallout from the financial crisis of 2008-2009. “All the Devils Are Here” by Bethany McLean is a fascinating account of how the conditions were created for this to happen. McLean wrote a compelling, detailed narrative of how the mortgage industry, the financial sector and government programs changed how Americans bought homes, eventually leading to the subprime mortgage crisis.
“Nomadland” is distinguished from dry accounts of labor issues and retirement insecurity by Bruder’s willingness to live as her subjectsdo. John McPhee is a master of this kind of immersive journalism. Through his contributions to The New Yorker and 38 books, his writing has become a guidepost for narrative nonfiction. In “Looking for a Ship,” McPhee investigates the plight of U.S. merchant mariners by accompanying a second mate on a 42-day trip along the coast of South America.
The nomadic life of the subjects in “Nomadland” is due in part to the rise of temporary work created by “disruptive” companies like Amazon. “Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work” by Sarah Kessler is a well-researched work filled with personal accounts of the “gig economy.” She finds an employment landscape emerging from the digital era where full-time jobs are disappearing and work does not provide steady hours or benefits.
The nomads traveling in their RVs prefer to call themselves “houseless” rather than “homeless,” although many of them are nomads due to circumstances beyond their control. “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City” by Matthew Desmond explores another contemporary phenomenon that affects the roofs over people’s heads. As rents rise and many families spend more than half of their income on housing, eviction has gone from rare to commonplace in some areas. This Pulitzer Prize-winning work illuminates the perpetual crisis of living in poverty by showing families grappling with limited options and precarious housing.
As nomads have grown in number, informal networks have developed between them and a community has formed. “Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor” by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh explores another type of informal network — the off-the-books, informal economy that is a necessity of daily life in poor neighborhoods. Venkatesh went to Maquis Park, a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, and documented the ways that men and women are connected to, and reliant upon, each other through various underground economic pursuits.
In “Walden on Wheels: On the Open Road From Debt to Freedom,” Ken Ilgunas describes how he paid off $32,000 of undergraduate debt by embracing the frugality of Henry David Thoreau and embarking on a transcontinental journey working various jobs. Then he started graduate school debt-free, and, to stay that way, he lived out of a used Econoline van.
“Woodswoman” by Anne LaBastille is a firsthand account of a woman’s life in the wilderness. When LaBastille’s estranged husband made her leave the inn they ran together she went into the Adirondack Mountains, built her ownlog cabin and learned to live without modern conveniences. In “Nomadland” we see one of the subjects, Linda May, reading “Woodswoman.” Linda is fascinated and inspired by the author’s frugality and independence.
If you’ve finished “Nomadland” and want to further engage with the subject matter, I hope these books will suffice until September when you can explore the topics and themes through discussions, art and other programs, culminating in a visit from Jessica Bruder on September 24. For more information visit the One Read website at www.oneread.org.