Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, by Chris Arnade, may not be the most well-crafted book I ever read, but it made a huge impact on me, and I am very grateful to have had the chance to read it. It helped me understand some of the issues in Cameron as well as why some of the things the movers and shakers are trying don’t really work.
I have a suspicion that my friends, family, and coworkers will be very glad when I write up this review, so I’ll stop summarizing the book and explaining what it says. I’m just so glad that I had some of my prejudices and misconceptions ripped away and have at least a bit more understanding of a subset of American society that I once had some strong biases against: the people in small towns or impoverished neighborhoods.
So, all about Dignity
Arnade calls people like me “front row people,” which are people who by luck of their birth have had all the opportunities available to be able to do what counts as “success” in the US: advanced degrees, home ownership, a job that uses the brain, not the body to earn a living. They have a front row seat at all the possible things the society values. He calls people who live in towns where all the employers are gone, where many people use drugs or alcohol to get through the day, and who use their bodies to work, when there is work, back row people. Always having trouble getting ahead, behind on opportunities, etc. *
It impressed me that Arnade, who was a Wall Street stockbroker, and therefore way in the front row, got curious about the lives of people near him who didn’t have the same opportunities he did. He spent three years getting to know a community in Brooklyn, then visited places across the US to learn how they get where they are and why they stay.
It’s by Peter Wohlleben, the German forester who wrote The Inner Life of Animals, which I reviewed recently. It’s the third volume in a trilogy that started with The Hidden Life of Trees, which I promise to finish and review, too.
You’ve just got to like Wohlleben, because he does not give a hoot if others think his ideas are not quite “scientific” enough or if he’s personifying non-human entities. Nope, he just calls things as he sees them, and seeing is his specialty. He doesn’t just look around his forest or anywhere else he visits, he carefully observes from the macro level to the micro level, and from the far past to the present. He doesn’t hesitate to ponder about the future, either. To me, this is the kind of teacher we all need, because he inspires all his readers to think beyond stereotypes and actually pay attention to what’s going on in front of them.
All the scientists out there will also appreciate that he backs up his observations with recent scholarship and provides us with a hefty bibliography for further exploration.
Why is this important?
As I was reading this book, I began to get a sinking feeling of concern. Wohlleben chronicles all sorts of ways humans have interfered with the interconnected web of life on this planet, and how the consequences are very far reaching. Changing the types of trees in European forests meant some organisms had nowhere to live, while others could march in and find new homes (or eat new things). Not having enough shade in the forest also meant huge differences.
Note: this post is about the history of a single county in north Florida. I am quite aware that there were civilizations, settlements, and migrations throughout North America long before events I talk about here. In fact, my own ancestors were in Florida long, long before Alachua County was settled.
While we were visiting Gainesville, the county seat of Alachua County, Florida, I bought this slim book (published in 2015), mainly because I wanted to know what a “biohistory” was. The subtitle of this little gem, which was written by Francis William (Bill) Zettler, is “The story of life in north central Florida through the ages.” It turns out the book is based on a popular class Zettler taught for many years at the University of Florida.
He uses the term “biohistory” to refer to his method of presenting the biological features of the area in chronological order. It turns out to be very enlightening and makes me want to read a biohistory of other areas where I’ve lived.
One thing that helped keep the book short is that Florida was underwater a long time, so there were no dinosaurs to talk about. It also helped that Florida was hard to get to, so animals, as well as humans, took their time showing up once the land mass revealed itself. I’d never thought of that!
But eventually there were lots of giant mammals (megafauna), like huge sloths, beavers, mammoths, and shovel-toothed elephants (cool). They did fine until the humans finally showed up and killed them all pretty quickly, leaving only animals we see today (deer and such). There were also camellids and different kinds of horses, which all escaped to live in Asia and South America.
I’ve just plowed through the latest North Cat Villas book club selection in record time. If there’s one thing I can say about this book, it’s that you have a hard time putting down Educated: a Memoir, by Tara Westover.
Anita and I were just discussing the cover, and we decided it’s a winner. I feel a bit silly that I didn’t realize the pencil is a picture of a girl on a mountain (the mountain is my favorite character in the book, too!). I enjoyed a story about what meetings about book covers were like when she worked in publishing. That pencil should be yellow! People expect a yellow pencil! No one will understand that woman (or see it)! Etc. We are glad the cover artist got their design through.
Note: I am going to share some details about the events in the book, so skip if you don’t want spoilers. But I honestly don’t think knowing any of this would detract from enjoying Educated.
Back to my old habits of reading nonfiction about nature, I just finished this book: The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion―Surprising Observations of a Hidden World, by Peter Wohlleben. The author is a caretaker for a forest in Germany, which gives him lots of time to observe the habits of the animals and plants he encounters there. He’s also the author of The HIdden Life of Trees, which has amazing information about how trees feel, communicate, and more. There’s a third volume in the series coming out soon, too.
You’ll either love Wohlleben’s approach to observing the feelings, morals, and behaviors of animals or be a little uncomfortable with it. He uses a lot of scientific evidence to back up his claims (the footnotes are a book unto themselves), but there’s plenty of gut feelings and assertions that an animal felt this way or that way, because it just looked like it to him.
Here’s one of those quirky facts about me that I’m not sure where it came from: I strongly resist jumping on the bandwagon of the latest “popular item,” whether it’s music, types of cars, clothing fads (no one has ever seen my bare midriff in public) decorating styles (“a nice, bright white”), and most assuredly, books.
So, when I was first encouraged to read Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens, I resisted. I kept thinking it would be one of those motivational books like The Secret or Chicken Soup for the Soul or that book about the shed…oh, The Shack. I figured, if everyone was reading it, snobby intellectual elitest Suna had probably read all the original source material.
That’s a bit harsh. I admit to not being fond of most books with mass appeal. But, the person who recommended Where the Crawdads Sing to me is also an intellectual elitist, and it’s a novel, so how could I have already read the source material? Oh, I know, it’s probably all formulaic and full of poor attempts at regional accents, with too many big words where small ones will do. Yeah. And it’s in Reese Witherspoon’s book club. Ew…
Not much going on here, because I was busy researching the history of our Cameron properties for a blog post yesterday. I’m learning a lot about the church and the houses around it. I’ll share links to other posts on this topic, in case folks are interested. Here’s my favorite aerial shot of the neighborhood in 1960:
I was fascinated by the last chapter, where they talked about about sourdough starters and how the microbes and such on the hands of the bakers make breads taste different. I was wondering about this, since the sourdough my friend Barron’s wife makes always tastes really good to me, but some other people’s is just to “sour” for me. Now I know why!
My other favorite part of the book was where the author, Rob Dunn, tells us not to mess with the spiders in our houses, because they are our friends and eat all sorts of things that we would LIKE for them to eat. Another tidbit was that most of the things people think of as “spider bites” are really staph infections. I was surprised, but there was plenty of research backing it up, according to the HUGE notes section.
So, there’s a book review for you. It looks like my next non-book club book will be the one Barron recommended that’s about the mind-gut connection. More microbes for me! Whee!