My Two Cents on Nickled and Dimed

Don’t know whether anyone else has been following this story, but briefly, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill has issued a required summer reading list for incoming freshmen that includes Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.

Righties say the book is too-one sided, that it villifies capitalism and corporations without providing the context of economic competitiveness. University officials are shocked and surprised that anyone would complain about a book that explains the state of affairs for working stiffs everywhere.

(For a nicely balanced description of the situation in context of the war between conservatives and liberals, read this article in Raleigh-based The News & Observer)

I, for one, don’t think that the freshmen should read the book, but not because of the underlying message—I agree, for instance, that the minimum wage should be increased. The students shouldn’t have to read it because it isn’t a very good book in the first place.

It’s supposed to be a first-person account of the struggles being working poor, but I never felt true sympathy for Ehrenreich and her flight of fancy into temporary poverty. Sure she cuts her access to savings, limits the amount of education and experience she puts on resumés, and so forth, but she always has her upper-class life to return to and uses that as a psychical barrier between her and the people she works with. This distance ends up coming across as condescending, that these individuals are characters in her novel, with only enough detail to show their other-ness when compared to her. It’s this half-amused, half-pitying “let’s save the poor, ignorant natives” kind of reporting that truly rubbed me the wrong way. They are “her” people in the Marxist class struggle sense, but not in the “equal, let’s hang out” sense at all.

In fact, I never got the feeling that she ever gets to know any of the people she works with, that when she isn’t working at the low-paying job, she’s back at her apartment writing notes and preparing this book. She focuses on the struggles of living at a lower income but ignores any positive experiences or enjoyable moments that can make a hard life bearable, namely friends and fun. And that’s sad, because I think it would have really helped the story (and her case) to get to know the people who aren’t just “experimenting” but actually have to live the life of working poor. How do they live their lives when they aren’t at work? What do they do for enjoyment? How do they view their predicament?

To capture the emotion of the working poor, to feel outrage about their predicament (which I believe UNC was trying to foster by assigning the book), I think a better bet would be to have them read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Sure, it’s a hundred years old, but it manages to get me frothing about corporations and exploitation like few books can.

Sometimes first-person nonfiction just doesn’t cut it.

Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed