Last month I read two remarkable books about people in extremis. Together they formed an exercise in empathy. Both are nonfiction; both Pulitzer prize winners.
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Matthew Desmond, 2016
Evicted follows several low-income families and their landlords in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It’s an amalgam of human stories and exhaustive research. As tenants struggle to pay rent, Desmond details a gauntlet of systemic injustices they face. Landlords and tenants are at a standoff over fixing dangerous living conditions. Reporting domestic abuse can itself be cause for eviction. Children are a liability when looking for housing. Public court records keep people from getting the help they need. Aid programs reach only a fraction of the community. Their strict eligibility requirements leave beneficiaries one slip away from a downward spiral.
Desmond’s writing elicits sympathy but its subjects are not gilded. People take questionable actions; they lie and steal and fight and burn bridges. Placing blame gets difficult. Is the system keeping the poor down, or did they do this to themselves? The book’s answer is “both.” Nobody is free of guilt in this scenario – it’s a vicious cycle between society and its poorest members.
Concluding, Demond suggests housing should be a basic American right. As a nation we already provide some basic needs as prerequisites to human dignity and our unalienable rights: Food stamps, social security, and public education in some sense exist because they enable life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “It is hard,” Desmond writes, “to argue that housing is not a fundamental human need… without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”
The Complete Maus
Art Spiegelman, 1980-1991
Maus is the most personal book I’ve ever read. The author describes his father Vladek’s experience as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust. The story jumps back and forth between Vladek’s experiences in the 1930s and ’40s, and Art’s own experiences interviewing his father and working on the book in the 1970s and ’80s.
The description of Vladek’s personal experience is eye-opening, but I prepared for it. What blindsided me about this book was how affecting Art’s experience is as well. Seeing Vladek as an old man, and Art’s strained relationship with him, one sees long-term multigenerational effects of the Holocaust that wouldn’t come through if the book only described events during WWII.
I’m not sure I can write any more about it, but I can’t recommend it enough.